A new documentary on the largest child protection agency in the US tells the stories of those who are often unheard
Sixteen-year-old Dasani sits in a room, his hands lightly twisting his hair. Breathing labored, he recounts the memories of the streets of Chicago to his lawyer, Patricia Soung, and case worker, Lammy. While he doesnt say what he is seeing, it is later revealed he witnessed the murder of his mother as a five- or six-year-old. Hands picking at his hair, it is evident the teen is still deeply affected by it, sweat beading on his forehead. Can we stop please? he finally asks. His lawyer and case worker are there to assess whether or not he might need more specialized counseling to aid him in his probation case. One of many youth entrusted to the foster care system and one of the subjects of new documentary Foster, he is the resident of a group home and is on probation after an allegation that he smoked weed.
The film follows the facets of the Los Angeles county department of children and family services, the largest child protection agency in the nation. Through the eyes of social workers, foster care youth, caretakers and even parents who are trying to regain custody of their children, Deborah Oppenheimer and Mark Jonathan Harris, the Oscar-winning producer and director of Foster present a mosaic of the foster care system. The film immortalizes the grit of Los Angeles, distant from the glimmering lights the city is known for, and illustrates the stories of those affected by the foster care system.
Each story in the movie has a different purpose and a different point to make. We couldnt possibly represent all the stories in the system but this is a handful of stories that could occur anywhere, across the country, said Oppenheimer. Harris agreed. Its a very complex system and we wanted to see it from multiple perspectives, he says.
The team, who also made 2001 documentary Into the Arms of Strangers, found themselves looking for another reason to work with each other. When Oppenheimer had an interaction with a foster care youth and mentioned it to Harris, the two decided to team up again to help show the full kaleidoscope of the system which holds the lives of so many innocent children like Dasanis in the piled-up case files of the often overworked but constantly concerned social workers.
Jessica Chandler, the social worker shadowed in the film, describes her profession as hard as hell. A similar sentiment is echoed by emergency response social worker Jacqueline Chum. Its like being in the marines, Chum says, as she rides to confront film subjects Raeanne and Chris about why there are drugs in their childs system. With child protection agencies in America receiving 4 million reports of neglect and abuse each year, according to the film, its clear there are systemic problems and its minority communities who bear most of the brunt. The documentary is riddled with devastating statistics, such as one in eight US children will have a case of neglect by age 18, and oscillates from chaos and pain to tender moments, granting grace and softening harsh preconceived judgments.
In a bedroom of foster mother Earcyclene Beavers home sits 13-year-old Denyisha. A ward of the state since she was a child, Denyisha expressed thoughts of depression and isolation before settling into the Beavers home, where she has been for five years. Like many of the children and even some of the adults in Foster, her early life was plagued by neglect and abuse by those who should have loved her most. But with Beavers, she feels safe for the first time. Before this home, she says, I didnt know that I could actually be loved.
Theres pain on show in the film but the end note is one of resilience. Despite the trauma that they have experienced, they have a tremendous resilience and potential. I think you see this in all the kids, said Harris. He continued: They have that kind of energy and I think thats one of the things that attracted Deborah and me to these people, why we picked them. Because despite what they experienced, they had a positive outlook on life.
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