FOSTER Takes an Important Look at Foster Care and Shows CII’s Family Preservation Program in Action

May 8, 2019
Ryan Imondi

There are currently more than 400,000 children in foster care in the U.S., a number that continues to grow each year. Drawing on unprecedented access, the documentary FOSTER traces a complex path through the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), interweaving first-hand stories of those navigating the child welfare system with insights from social workers, advocates and others working in the justice system.

Last night, as part of National Foster Care Month, CII teamed up with Film Independent to co-present a screening of the new HBO documentary FOSTER at the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles. Following the screening, CII’s President & CEO Martine Singer was joined by Oscar-winning filmmakers Deborah Oppenheimer and Mark Jonathan Harris, as well as film subjects Jessica Chandler, a DCFS social worker who grew up in foster care, and Mary Montoya, a transition-aged foster youth navigating college. The discussion was moderated by Film Independent Curator Elvis Mitchell.

FOSTER features CII program

From left: Oscar-winning Director Mark Jonathan Harris, transition-aged foster youth Mary Montoya, DCFS social worker Jessica Chandler, Oscar-winning Director Deborah Oppenheimer, and CII President & CEO Martine Singer.

Oppenheimer, who won an Academy Award with Harris for the film Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of Kindertransport, said the two approached FOSTER wanting to provide an accurate portrayal of the foster care system that differed from how it is often unfairly cast in pop culture and media. She said much of the general public has very little information on how the system operates or the stories of those who are navigating it.

“I was very aware that I had never encountered a foster youth,” Oppenheimer said. “I had never encountered the system or a social worker, and a lot of the people in my life hadn’t either.”

The filmmakers captured more than 150 hours of footage and spent 10 years making the film. While the run time is just under two hours, Oppenheimer said she and Harris felt the movie could have easily been over three hours because there are so many different and important perspectives involved in the foster care system.

I was very aware that I had never encountered a foster youth. I had never encountered the system or a social worker, and a lot of the people in my life hadn’t either.

Deborah Oppenheimer, producer, FOSTER

Harris said it was a privilege to get such honest and intimate access during the filming process.

“They’re working through their stories as we are making this film,” Harris said. “The stories emerge and you try to be faithful to your experience as a filmmaker, and you try to communicate what you discover in the process of making the film.”

One of the perspectives the filmmakers felt was important to share involved CII’s Family Preservation program, which offers support to families who are at risk for entering the system. In the film, the family is referred to CII after their infant tests positive for traces of cocaine at birth. The mother is required to seek treatment for substance abuse while the father needs support for parenting their daughter alone. At the time, he was working the night shift at Walmart and didn’t have the schedule or resources to support his child.

Allyson Manumaleuna, CII’s Family Preservation Supervisor, worked directly with the family and is featured meeting with them at CII’s Watts Campus in the film.

HBO and Children's Instute

Two clients in CII’s Family Preservation Program that were featured in the HBO documentary FOSTER who needed support to keep their daughter out of foster care.

According to Manumaleuna, CII worked with the father while the mother was in treatment. When the family was first referred to Family Preservation, the father was commuting on public transportation with his child during unsafe hours because he had zero child care options. Only 24-years-old, he lived with his grandfather in a small apartment and had never taken a parenting class.

“As soon as we received the case, we started weekly in-home services to get to know the family and understand what resources they would need,” Manumaleuna said. “We were able to get him free child care so he could continue to work, but also get enough sleep to be a great parent.”

Family Preservation also worked to get the father essential items like diapers and wipes while working to get him stable housing. As part of Family Preservation, he enrolled in Growing Great Kids, a class offered through the program that teachers parenting skills. While the father took these classes, the mother successfully completed her substance abuse course.

There is no big mystery around it, there is just not enough political will or money. We can stop the cycle, we can help people, and there are plenty of things that work if only our politicians will listen.

Martine Singer, President & CEO, Children’s Institute

While not every story has a happy ending, Manumaleuna said the family was able to complete crucial steps and get connected to resources that prevented their child from entering foster care. She believes the family gained tools to ensure their child grows up supported and loved.

In this instance, she said the Family Preservation program worked as it was designed to. Success stories like this family’s not only prevent children from entering foster care, but also create happy and healthy home environments that break the cycle.

“We provide consistent support in-home every week to families who don’t have the resources,” she said. “The families do all of the work – we just help them along the way.”

HBO documentary

CII partnered with Film Independent to hold a special screening and Q&A that was moderated by Film Independent Curator Elvis Mitchell.

Singer said FOSTER does a good job of capturing the root causes that lead to families needing programs like Family Preservation or other services in the foster care system. She said communities featured in the film have been redlined, isolated and lacking investment, which lead to violence and crime.

“There are a lot of causes for the problems we see in the movie like poverty,” Singer said. “Not to take away from personal responsibility, but there are a lot of forces that cause the circumstances to be what they are.”

Singer said this movie will hopefully allow people to have a better understanding of the foster care system and judge the people involved less harshly. She said there are a lot of programs that are effective in addressing the underlying issues, but they need better funding.

“There is no big mystery around it – there is just not enough political will or money,” Singer said. “We can stop the cycle, we can help people, and there are plenty of things that work if only our politicians will listen.”

FOSTER debuted May 7, 2019 exclusively on HBO and is currently available on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW, HBO GO and partners’ streaming platforms.