The public in general knows very little about the foster care system and what they may know is mostly rooted in stereotypes, stigma to choose the lens (positive or negative) through which we view everything. I believe the accurate representation of foster youth in the media is necessary to destroy the negative stigma most people have about foster care and empower more people to get involved in supporting foster children or, in the very least, inspire people to educate themselves about the foster care system and how and why it exists.
As an alumna of foster care, I’m a little (ok, A LOT) more sensitive to how foster youth are portrayed in the media. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been engrossed in a show or movie when a character representing a foster child is introduced and they’re others) because of how enraged I’ve become. The movie Orphan brings this to mind. The film centers on a couple that, after the death of their unborn child, adopt a mysterious nine-year old girl and although, it is a psychological horror film, I was infuriated by certain elements in the film. To avoid giving away the movie for anyone who has not seen it, I won’t go into detail. I even believe that a couple large foster youth organizations made a large stink about it as well (as they should have).
On the other hand, I feel like we’re making progress (however slow) with having more positive depictions of foster youth/foster care in the mainstream media. A few examples come to mind:
• AdoptUs Kids Media Campaign: AdoptUS Kids is a multi-faceted, federally funded project whose mission is to raise public awareness about the need for families for children in foster care, and assist States, Territories and Tribes to recruit and retain foster and adoptive families and connect them with children. They’ve developed a national public awareness outreach campaign geared towards the adoption of older kids. I love the humor and creativity they use to recruit foster and adoptive parents. I think their campaign would be even better if they were to use actual alumni in their PSAs and engage Alumni Celebrities to assist with the messaging. Many people have no idea that some of their favorite actors/actresses, sports players, and famous business owners are alumni of the foster care system.
• Rosie O’Donnell’s Lifetime movie, America: Rosie plays a psychiatrist at a youth treatment center who tries to help a young man get his life together after many troubling years in the foster care system. I absolutely LOVED this movie and feel it did a great job featuring some of the very real (and not so pretty) issues that youth in group homes experience.
• The Fosters: The Fosters is an American teen/family drama series on ABC Family that premiered on June 3, 2013. The series follows the lives of the Foster family, a lesbian couple raising children together. Although I believe this is a very “clean and safe” depiction of foster care, I think it is monumental that a major network would embark on shedding any type of light on foster care. A number of us alumni of foster care have joked that the show features some of the best dressed foster children we’ve ever seen and the fact that the parents don’t lock up the refrigerator or feed the foster youth peanut butter jelly sandwiches while they and their biological children eat steak – is amazing. I have a few ideas on how the show can be more purposeful in revealing some of the issues within foster care as well as how to feature successful alumni, allowing the world to see positive role models from foster care. I’d love to share them with Brad Bredeweg and Peter Paige (and even Jennifer Lopez) should they want to hear them
I was also inspired by the Entertainment Industries Council’s (EIC) efforts to ensure foster care is depicted accurately in the media by engaging foster care experts (myself included) to provide guidance to producers and directors looking to include foster care in their work. Entertainment Industries Council is a United States non-profit organization founded in 1983 that promotes the depiction of accurate health and social issues in film, television, music, and comic books.
How can you help ensure more positive depictions of foster youth and foster care are featured in the media? Fostercaremonth.org shares a few tips here: http://www.fostercaremonth.org/getinvolved/toolkit/workingwithmedia/defa.... Exercise your good old fashion right to send a letter to the networks, shows, organizations that are using media to portray foster care to let them know how much you love or hate how they’re doing it. If you are one of these organizations/networks/shows, please engage actual alumni in your campaign/show- not just for advice but also to feature their positive contributions to their communities (even if it is not child welfare related). Only when people are able to associate positive and successful people with foster care will the stigma associated with it begin to dissolve.