Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The shame of HBO’s “Foster”

The foster parent is a saint!  The caseworkers are heroes!  The birth parents are scum! (Unless they repent in which case they are merely sick.)  And none of that is even the worst thing about this documentary.

This is a stock photo. This child is not the subject of a documentary
about foster care. If he were, no one would show his face.
Or would they?
In its promotional material for the “documentary” Foster, (and no, I’m not going to link to it) HBO declares that it “upend[s] some of the most enduring myths about foster care, going beyond the stereotypes.”

On the contrary. Foster enshrines enduring myths and stereotypes. Foster is the system the way the system wants to be seen – noble foster parents and heroic caseworkers rescuing innocent children from parents who are usually the scum of the earth but occasionally – if they repent – merely sick.  And all that isn’t even the worst part.

Foster mimics one of the biggest failures of the system itself.  Foster care, the system, is built to help the helpers – to make the helpers feel good, even at the expense of the children.  Foster, the documentary, does exactly the same thing. That’s why it’s going to be enormously popular among middle class professionals in the system, and that’s why none of them is likely to notice the documentary’s single greatest flaw; a failure not of filmmaking but of ethics.

Wrong from the start

 Foster gets it wrong literally from the opening moments.  It begins with the claim that one in eight American children will suffer a “confirmed” case of abuse or neglect by age 18.  That’s not true.

“Confirmed” is a made-up term, used by those wedded to a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, to mischaracterize cases. The actual terms “indicated” or “substantiated” can mean only that a caseworker guessed that it is slightly more likely than not that some kind of abuse or neglect occurred.  And, at no point does Foster even hint that there is a vast difference between the horrors described by some of the children in the “documentary” and typical cases; cases that often involve the confusion of family poverty with “neglect.”

It’s all downhill from there.

 A real-life “Aunt Ti.”

First we meet the foster mother who is essentially the star of the program. She deserves to be. There is no reason to doubt the portrayal of this foster parent as someone who has been, sometimes literally, a lifesaver for the children in her care.

She is a woman possessed of such boundless patience, genuine love, and enthusiasm that by the end of the program you’ll probably wish your parents had been accused of child abuse just so you could have the chance to go live with her.  The only other foster parent who comes close is “Aunt Ti” – and she exists only in a Twilight Zone episode written by the creator of The Waltons.

But such foster parents are no more typical than the ones on the other extreme – the ones who abuse the children entrusted to their care.

But this isn’t the worst of it.

Equally unrepresentative are the current and former foster children - at least in terms of what brought them into foster care. We hear only from foster children whose parents range from inexcusably neglectful to unspeakably cruel, often raining down physical and verbal abuse.  Again, there is no reason to doubt their accounts. But the parents they describe are not typical of the parents who lose children to the system.

Put Foster’s atypical portrayals of birth parents and foster parents together and viewers are left wondering why we don’t rush in and “rescue” far more children from horrible parents, since what could be better for them than a real-life Aunt Ti?

But this isn’t the worst of it either.

The only good parent is a redeemed parent

But wait, I can hear the producers saying: What about the parents we did show? – we didn’t portray them as evil.

True, but in the world of Foster, if birth parents aren’t evil they have to be sick! Sick! Sick!  And they must be guided by noble caseworkers into realizing the error of their ways and repenting!  Then and only then do they “deserve” to have their children back. 

Indeed, a guidebook for “watch parties” explicitly calls on discussion leaders to push a “public   There is nothing in Foster to indicate that what’s really needed is a social justice approach – something that’s been shown effective in study after study.
health” approach to child welfare.
But in Foster the only good parent is a parent who has been properly cured – and redeemed.  So this is what we see:

A mother uses drugs while pregnant. The infant tests positive for cocaine.  Mom lies about it – to avoid having the child taken away. Dad has no idea Mom was doing drugs.  The family is reunited but only after scene after scene in which Mom confesses to how horrible she’s been, and both parents express undying gratitude to the caseworkers and thank them profusely.  (They’re going to love screening this at social work schools!)

In fact, there probably is no reason this infant couldn’t have been left with this loving couple in which the mother made a mistake.  It’s likely that all they needed was concrete help and, possibly, drug treatment for the mother.  Or the infant could have been placed in the sole custody of the father – which is what happened eventually, but only after the child was placed in foster care and the parents bowed and scraped enough to persuade the system they were worthy.

Foster, however, offers no hint that there was any alternative to removal. The explanation from the caseworker is taken at face value. And only inadvertently do we see how the system actually put stress on the family that may have driven the parents apart.

At one point an “investigator” visiting the father suspects that the infant may have had a seizure.  And that, in turn, might be because of Mom’s drug use.  It is only much later in the documentary that those viewers still around learn that there is no medical evidence that there was a seizure (though it’s still assumed to have happened) and no evidence that cocaine use caused the alleged seizure – if there was a seizure.

But by then Dad has become furious at Mom.  At a counseling session (of course), with the mother in the room, he says: “I was pissed off that she did something and it’s going to reflect on my daughter.  Why the hell did you choose to use that fu----g drug!”  To which the counselor replies “It’s great you were able to get that off your chest … [but] you have to forgive her.”

At the end of the program, it’s revealed that the couple has separated.

Reinforcing stereotypes about “drug babies.”

This family isn’t the only one harmed in ways the producers can’t seem to see.

As The New York Times explains, one of the most important lessons of the “crack baby” scare of the 1980s is that not only were the claims about the effects of prenatal substance abuse grossly overblown, often it was the very stigma inflicted on the children by the system that caused the harm.

In Foster we meet an 18-year-old who is one of the few foster youth to make it into college, where she is struggling.  She beat enormous odds, both because she was one of those treated horribly by her own mother, and because she was moved to so many homes she can’t even remember them all. Anyone who can come so far in spite of so much is a lot of things, such as resilient, determined and courageous.  She sure isn’t “dumb.”

But she thinks she is.  And she thinks she knows why.  Twice she says it’s because “I was a drug baby.”

Apparently, no one ever told her otherwise.  And now, a documentary will reinforce that belief – for her, and for viewers.

But even this isn’t the worst thing about Foster. 

A massive invasion of privacy

The worst is its massive invasion of children’s privacy.

HBO brags about how the producers of Foster got “unprecedented access.”  That is true. And it’s a travesty.

The most intimate details of a 16-year-old’s life – and his crimes (he’s already part of the juvenile justice system) -- are discussed on camera in meetings and at televised court hearings.  What is apparently his real first name – an unusual name – is used throughout and he is seen on camera.

Much younger children also are seen, being interviewed and interacting with their foster mother.  An autistic eight-year-old is seen breaking down and having a tantrum for fear of getting onto a school bus.  Now, all of these moments will live on forever.

All because a child protective services agency – the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) - and a bunch of other players in the system, traded these children’s privacy for some good p.r.

I’m sure it was all legal.  I’m sure all the proper forms and releases were signed.  But here’s the problem: no one – no one – who has the legal authority to sign away the privacy of foster children by putting their faces on camera and using their real first names has the moral right to do it. 

That’s because the moral right to decide whether the benefits of such exposure outweigh the risks rests only with those who love the children whose privacy is at risk.  Agencies do not love children.  (It’s the same issue that arises when child welfare agencies allow foster children to be used for clinical drug trials. Yes, that does happen.)

These children’s own parents can’t give truly informed consent for the simple reason that they’re inherently under duress.  They may fear that if they don’t sign the form they might never see the children again.

If the children of the foster mother actually were adopted before they were put on camera, then their adoptive mother had the right to make the decision.  But except for one of the children, whose status is seen changing to guardianship (at an on camera court hearing) they are all portrayed as foster children.  It that is accurate than the foster mother, however well intentioned, lacked the moral right to sign those forms.

Mind-boggling hypocrisy

Even more mind-boggling is the hypocrisy.  NCCPR favors open court hearings in child welfare cases.  But whenever there is an attempt to open court hearings in a new state or locality, it’s almost always the child welfare agency, or assorted other parts of the system, that scream and yell about how this should not be done because those sleazy journalists can’t be trusted to keep children’s identities a secret. 

But journalists have an outstanding record of voluntarily withholding children’s names and other identifying information.  That’s one reason why at least 40 percent of foster children now live in communities where court hearings are open, in many cases they’ve been open for decades with no problems.

Los Angeles County, however, is not one of them.  In fact, when it was tried, an appellate court stopped it. One of the groups that objected said that opening the hearings “put the needs and interests of the public and the media ahead of the victims of child abuse and neglect.”

Yet in Foster, that same group, and others who had opposed open courts in Los Angeles, are enthusiastic participants.  Various professionals are seen – sometimes along with their young clients – on camera, in meetings discussing the most intimate aspects of the lives of children we have gotten to know by face and first name, in therapy sessions, and in court hearings that have not only been opened, but opened to cameras.

The benefits of leaving L.A.

It’s hard to blame the producers for all this. They, too, almost certainly had the best of intentions. But they made one crucial mistake: They never left Los Angeles.  They tapped into the master narrative that has dominated Los Angeles child welfare, and coverage of Los Angeles child welfare, for decades.  Those thanked in the closing credits include some of the very people and groups responsible for getting child welfare wrong all the way back to the McMartin Preschool hysteria. 

And there’s no effective counter-narrative in Los Angeles – in particular no well-organized, passionate community of family defense attorneys.

Had the producers decided to do their documentary about foster care in New York City, odds are they would have told a very different, and much more complete, story.