Let Love Define Family: Portraying a Modern Generation of Foster Parents

Let Love Define Family: 

Portraying a Modern Generation of Foster Parents

Media content has the power to shape perceptions and views on a mass scale. Unfortunately, media portrayals of youth in foster care are often negative and perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes. In this special blog series, The Center for Scholars and Storytellers is exploring this topic from multiple perspectives to inform and inspire the creation of accurate, empowering, and socially responsible media portrayals of foster care. 

Just as there are many destructive stereotypes about youth in foster care, there are countless misperceptions of the type of people who become foster parents and their underlying motivations. From the perfect, savior, do-good foster couple, to the careless, mean foster parent who is only in it for the money, these unhelpful stereotypes prevent everyday people from seeing themselves as a foster parent, thus reducing the options for children waiting for a family. This is particularly problematic when it comes to media portrayals, as it helps to “see it to be it.” Indeed, in the previous post in this special foster care series, a foster parent noted how they are typically portrayed as either “perfect people” or “system milkers.” 

Why is this critical? From talking to countless foster care professionals in the United States and Canada, it’s clear that their number one problem is a shortage of foster parents, particularly from minority groups. Therefore, we flagged this as one of the most important topics to communicate to content creators. Because media has immense power to influence behaviors, portraying foster parents and the motivations behind fostering in a relatable, positive, and realistic way could inspire viewers to consider being foster parents themselves. As Marianne Guilfoyle, Chief Innovations Officer at LA-based Allies for Every Child states, “Media has the ability to drive home the notion-- if not you, then who will answer the call to meet the need of the children in your community?”

More specifically, we need to reach and mobilize a new generation of foster parents. This is the mission behind the LA-based non-profit organization Raise a Child, where they are urging people to “reimagine foster parents.” I spoke with the organization’s founder, Rich Valenza, to learn more about his personal path to fostering and adoption, the goals of the organization, and the message he has for content creators. (Click here to see Valenza and his family featured as the first LGBTQ+ family featured on the annual CBS special, A Home for the Holidays.)

“At Raise a Child, our motto is, Let Love Define Family,” says Valenza. “There are no accidents or sudden decisions in fostering and adopting. You are planning a family and you chose those children. It’s truly a thing of love and acceptance, and it needs to be portrayed that way.”

Valenza suggests we need to “rebrand” what it means and looks like to be a foster parent. Indeed, today, more than ever before, there are countless new drivers for people to become foster parents and adopt through foster parenting. It is more than just heterosexuals couples who can’t conceive biologically who foster, and media content should reflect these modern realities. Foster parents range from  same-sex couples wanting to build a family, to single men and women who don’t want to wait for a partner to start a family, to those who are environmentally conscious looking for a way to raise children without increasing their carbon footprint, to people driven by social justice who want to help elevate kids out of a repressive cycle to make a positive impact on thier community. As Ching-chu Hu and Jim Van-Reeth, multi-racial, well-educated, same-sex couple from Ohio who have adopted four children through the foster care system point out, “There is no more effective way to positively impact children and ultimately society as a whole.”

Speaking further to social justice, there are countless horrible circumstances for children around the world, and even in our own country, that often leave people feeling helpless. “People are justifiably outraged,” explain Hu and Van-Reeth. “Perhaps we can’t do anything about these things, but we can at least help out local children in the foster care system who are from broken homes and give them a fresh start. Helping out locally does positively affect the world.”

The system is also more progressive than some may think. For instance, Hu and Van-Reeth assumed that because they lived in a small, conservative town, they would have to adopt internationally. But during the adoption certification program, they noticed that representatives from the local county foster agency kept approaching them to chat. Being used to prejudice in other areas of their lives, they at first thought they were being further checked out to see if their motives to adopt were pure. It wasn’t until about halfway through the courses that they realized these agency workers were trying to convince them to work with the local foster care agency rather than adopt internationally. As they put it, “The foster care workers didn't see color or sexuality - they were simply evaluating based on capabilities.”

Similarly, going into the foster process Valenza expected to face some discrimnation as a single, gay man. Instead, leadership within LA County Foster Care quickly realized what an incredible foster father and advocate he was, and recruited him to help them encourage more people from the LGBTQ+ community to become foster parents -- the genesis of Raise a Child.

Actionable insights for content creators: 

  • Depict relatable foster parents from a variety of backgrounds (e.g. race, culture, LGBTQ+) and family structure. 

    - Media that gets it right: A lesbian couple in The Fosters, An African-American couple in This is Us.

  • Include modern motivations for fostering. Examples include: single parents, same-sex parents, people driven by social justice and/or environmental reasons. 

Colleen Russo Johnson, PhD

Co-Director for the Center for Scholars and Storytellers

This blog series is supported in part by the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families.