“We’re Not Broken”
What two former foster youth want content creators to know
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 youth in foster care.
“People would judge me based off of my situation of being in foster care and not based on who I was as a person. A lot of times it’s other children around you that are the most cruel. You are never given a fair chance to show your true colors.” -- Former foster youth
Children and teens in foster care constantly face judgments from others, solely based on their connection to foster care. How foster youth are portrayed in TV shows and movies impacts this perception-- both positively and negatively. The Center for Scholars and Storytellers is in the process of gathering insight from young adults who were previously in foster care. The following features two former foster youth, both men who are now in their early 20s and 30s.
Both men felt that the general public has negative impressions of youth in foster care, which mirror the unhelpful stereotypes they see perpetuated in TV shows and movies. When describing how they think people view foster youth, they used words such as:
They felt that media portrayals of foster youth are overall negative, one-dimensional, and rife with damaging stereotypes.
“Most of the times foster children are portrayed in a negative way, as if they are problematic and troubled. In rare cases do you see them shown in a positive light.”
“A lot of stereotypes of what a foster youth is persists in mainstream media and for myself it becomes hard to watch popular shows or movies.”
One man mentioned that in his experience, white or lighter skinned foster children are more likely to be portrayed as ending up with a positive situation, whereas Latinos and African Americans are more often shown as aggressive and/or as criminals. It was also mentioned how the lack of diversity in portrayed foster youth has made it hard for him to relate to the characters.
One of the best ways to tackle this problem is to encourage former foster youth to get involved in the media content creation process. Not just as consultants informing the process, but as creators, writers, producers, directors, and more. One of the men even called this out, saying, “I don't think there's enough foster youth involved behind the scenes in creating and producing media content.”
Regarding one-dimensionality, it was mentioned how there isn’t enough nuance in the conflicting emotions foster youth have with the foster care system itself, let alone everything else happening in their life. The system is often portrayed negatively, which can deter people from getting involved in social work or as foster parents. There are many good things about the foster care system and people working in it that could be highlighted in media content.
“At its core, the foster care program starts from a good place with good intentions for mankind. It allows different people in need of love to unite. Whether you are an adult looking for a child to love, or a child or teen who is often heartbroken and at a loss of love.”
Foster youth have a lot to overcome. For instance, they lack a financial and emotional safety net due to constant moving between foster homes, schools, and sometimes states. This is something that other children often take for granted. When asked who they turn to when they need to talk to someone, both men said they rarely turn to anyone; “Unfortunately, a lot of times you subconsciously adopt the lifestyle of a lone wolf”. Feared consequences for even the smallest of venting, and continued worries of displacement contribute to this lack of trust in others.
But foster youth also learn to be extremely resilient, and both of these men have developed extremely positive outlooks. When asked to reflect on what he would tell his younger self, one man responded: “Great job ....you followed your heart you looked towards a better day and everything worked out.... I would not change anything.”
We also asked them what they would want to tell their future self, and the answers were truly beautiful and inspiring:
“I would say thank you for investing in your dream and not giving up when everyone told you the system is too big to question.”
“I would tell my future self always stay true to yourself and never forget where you came from nor the journey you took to reach the place you are now. If you are ever in a position to change someone’s life or even influence someone’s life for the better, give it your all even if its a complete stranger. I was once a complete stranger to the family I now love and the woman of my life I now call Mom!”
Seeing more positive depictions of youth in foster care can go a long way in changing the narrative around what it means to be a youth in foster care. Indeed both men spoke of their desire for a “better picture to be painted” when it comes to foster youth portrayal in media.
“Instead of broken, youth in foster care should be portrayed as survivors: strong, successful, and rejuvenated.”
Actionable Insights for Content Creators:
Avoid playing into negative stereotypes about foster care youth and instead focus on their strengths.
Portray realistic stories and representation by including those who have experienced the foster care system throughout the writing and production process.
Colleen Russo Johnson, PhD
This blog series is supported in part by the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families.
Upcoming foster care blog posts in this special series to explore:
Foster parent perspective, and how to encourage more
Features on media that “gets it right”