It is striking that in a film as filled with human drama as the HBO documentary “Foster,” which airs Tuesday, the most memorable images may be of paper. Once in a while the camera pans across teetering piles of overstuffed folders, each one representing the story of a child who has been reported to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Each folder makes the problems of the foster care system seem more overwhelming and even unsolvable.
The documentary is disturbingly accurate in explaining the problems of child welfare agencies, but it is less good at outlining solutions. By filling in around its edges, “Foster” can nonetheless serve as something of a guide to the practices that can do the most to help the 18,000 kids in Los Angeles County’s care, and the half-million in foster systems nationwide.
The filmmakers follow the story of a mother, Raeanne, who gives birth at a hospital and tests positive for cocaine. Drug use by parents is the major driver of abuse and neglect cases reported to welfare agencies. In this case, the authorities move quickly to remove the baby from the mother’s care, and they have a good alternative, one that is frankly an anomaly in most child welfare cases. Raeanne’s boyfriend Chris, the baby’s father, turns out to be a responsible young man who holds down a full-time job while living with his grandfather and caring for his daughter.
Ensuring that a substance-exposed baby leaves the hospital with a sober, caring adult who will limit the child’s contact with drug-addicted relatives is a vital part of child welfare policy. So is establishing a time frame in which parents like Raeanne must clean up their act. It is crucial for a child’s development that they form a secure attachment to a single adult between birth and age 3, but most states, including California, tend to shuttle children between biological parents and foster care during this period. Arizona recently enacted a law that would start the process of severing parental rights if the mother had not gotten sober within a year of the child’s birth.
But what if the abuse isn’t as easily documented as cocaine in a young mother’s system?
The Los Angeles County Child Protection Hotline fielded nearly 219,000 calls of child abuse in 2016, and the movie shows the process in action. Some of the calls are false alarms. Most, however, should be investigated, but with limited resources, a jurisdiction as big as L.A. County can’t cover them, all as “Foster” makes clear. The county ran a pilot program using “big data” and algorithms to help it prioritize investigations. While there were some problems with it, the program was able to predict with 76% accuracy which cases were the most urgent, an improvement over shot-in-the-dark guesses.
What happens after an intervention takes place? The documentary shows us Mrs. Beavers, who has four children adopted out of foster care — including a young girl with autism — and has fostered many others over the years. She is not a young woman and seems to have few financial resources and no one else helping her with these kids. Yet the movie reports that she gets calls every day from caseworkers asking if she can take another child.
The message is clear once again: There are way too few Mrs. Beaverses and child welfare services cannot operate successfully without them. In many parts of the country, nonprofits — mostly large evangelical churches — are stepping into the gap, recruiting middle-class, stable families to provide foster care. When they do, they tend to improve on government programs by surrounding the foster families with other volunteers who provide respite care, meals, clothing and emotional support. The CALL, a Christian agency in Arkansas, works to recruit, train and support foster families. Between 2007 and 2018, its families fostered 10,000 kids and adopted 800 of them.
When there are not enough foster homes, children go into congregate care, and one teenager in the movie, Dasani, goes through a series of these facilities in L.A. County, each more punitive than the next. But there are also attempts around the country to provide a more constructive kind of institutional care — it can be done. Utah Youth Village, a nonprofit that runs group homes in and around Salt Lake City, teaches boys and girls to live in a family again and even increases their chance of ultimately being adopted. Each home’s married couple have been through intensive training and are paid full time to care for the eight or so kids they foster.
Finally the documentary portrays a young woman, Mary, who has made it through years of terrible abuse — beaten and burned by her drug-addled mother, she is told her very existence is a mistake — but the county places her in what seems like a loving foster home, and she manages to get to college. Thanks to recent changes in California law she can stay in the foster care system until she is 21 rather than 18, which means she can get help with housing and other financial support. But she is struggling in school, in part, she says, due to the side effects of being born substance-exposed.
Mary’s educational challenges are typical for foster kids. They tend to move among schools as they move among homes, with some experiencing dozens of placements. And while there is an increasing understanding that foster kids need emotional and behavioral counseling, specific academic counseling often goes ignored. Miami and Washington D.C. have set up schools for kids in foster care — five day boarding programs that are designed to deal with specific problems and prepare these kids for a productive future.
It’s easy to switch off “Foster” feeling simply overwhelmed. But putting the often sorry reality of the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services in a wider context can signal what needs to happen in all of our child welfare programs: technology, quality nonprofits, faith-based organizations, schools and individual families have to be enlisted to help the state care for vulnerable children.