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How Television is Fostering a Discussion on Child Welfare and Family Dynamics

Thanks to ABC Family’s new series The Fosters for sponsoring this post. Click here to see more of the discussion. Also, watch the premiere of The Fosters on Monday, June 3 at 9/8c only on ABC Family.

DAVID LAMBERT, JAKE T. AUSTIN, TERI POLO, CIERRA RAMIREZ, MAIA MITCHELLRecently I had the opportunity to watch the premiere episode of the ABC Family television show The Fosters. While I have previously shared that it is my hope that this show will facilitate a dialogue about foster care and hopefully inspire men and women and couples to take the leap and become foster parents after watching, I became even more hopeful.

The show features a multiethnic family comprised of two adopted twins and a biological child from a previous marriage living with their two mothers and a foster youth. Although there will be many viewers who will have a lot to say based on that premise alone, I hope that the true messages woven into the show are not missed because people aren’t willing to look beyond the catchy name or the family composition.

I believe to some degree we are responsible for our nation’s children. Whether or not we share the same genetic make-up as them is not important. The fact that they are human is enough of a reason to realize that their existence is worth something and their potential to be contributing members of our society is ever present. Had life played out differently many of us could have found ourselves in a situation similar to that of Callie, the teenaged foster youth the Fosters take in or even the twins they adopted. There is a possibility that some of you have.

As I watched the show, I felt immersed in what was happening. I do see color. I see racial differences, cultural differences, gender differences, differences in sexual orientation and socioeconomic differences. It is my belief that these things play a role in the person that we are, yet they do not define us but together they make-up who we are.  They certainly don’t override the most important parts of who we are such as our hearts; some of us have hearts that are predisposed to wanting to make a difference in the lives of others and the ability to be compassionate. And yet, even though I see certain characteristics very clearly as I started watching the story of Callie a foster teen unravel during the course of the show, all of these things that could easily be associated with the various characters weren’t my primary focus. Instead I wanted to know who Callie was. I wanted to know her story. Callie mattered.

As the show progressed there was a moment in which Stef Foster, a mother and police officer, looked at Callie and said, “You’re not disposable Callie. You’re not worthless.” At that moment my eyes welled up; my mind quickly reflected on the various foster youth I came into contact with during my time as child welfare professional. I thought about the talks that I had with my clients, who in some ways were my kids, about how they mattered. That what they had to say was important and worth the listening ears of those in their lives. My heart ached when occasionally they told me that no one cared what they had to say or how they felt. I thought about what it might have done for these children if someone looked into their eyes the way Stef did and said you’re not disposable. You’re not worthless.

Children, even the ones that act out or say snarky things are not disposable and they are not worthless. Foster children are just as valuable and priceless as the children we carried in our wombs or signed adoption paperwork for.

The Fosters sheds light on the challenges with the child welfare system such as the fact that there are foster parents who have no business being trusted with our children and the shortage there is when it comes to placements. But at the same time it reminds us that there are some loving caring people out there; families that mirror the Fosters and families who may not physically appear anything like the Fosters other than the fact that they share the same love for children and the desire to give children a chance to be children. Many of us know firsthand that the chance to be such is often taken from children. But we also know that often support, resources, and love can override the fallout of some of the most horrific situations.

While I believe that this show is filled with messages, takeaways and opportunities for self-reflection, I also believe that it is a chance to help people realize that foster youth is not all that different from youth who have not been in the “system” except for the fact that the hand they were dealt has often forced them to have to grow up (or mature) before their time. They are not disposable. They are not a burden to society. They are doing their best with what they’ve got and trying to find their way in a world that can be difficult to navigate even for us adults. In the best of situations they are fortunate to have their own real life version of the Fosters — someone who realizes that their life holds meaning and value. Helping a child navigate life whether it be long term or for a season isn’t just a job but also an honor. These children, our children, need someone who can look into their eyes, past the anger, hurt, fear, pain or the various emotions that they have. Someone who can look beyond the running list of behaviors or problems that follows them from placement to placement. Someone who will stop and take a moment to tell them that they are not disposable and not worthless and subsequently have the courage to show them too.

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