“There’s More to the Picture”:
What the adults of Foster Care 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.
“I think most people don't really understand why someone would want to be a foster parent. They don't understand the positive effects a foster parent can have on a child and their birth family, and what they get back (emotionally) in return.”
When we think of foster care, we immediately picture children and teens. But for every youth in care, there are many adults directly attached, including birth parents, foster parents, and social care workers. So when we look at foster care portrayals in fictional media, it is critical to take a holistic look that includes how the adults within the system are depicted. To do so, we sought feedback from two foster parents (one male, one female) and two foster care professionals (both females in leadership roles at foster care agencies).
Can fictional media persuade (or dissuade) adults from becoming foster parents?
According to all four respondents, the answer is a resounding yes. But, it does go in both directions. One respondent stated that they believe the negative images in the media have contributed to the difficulty of recruiting foster parents, whereas the foster Dad said it was actually a positive portrayal of foster care in fictional media that initially inspired him to become a foster parent (he specifically noted the CBC special “A Home for the Holidays” and ABC’s “The Fosters”.)
It is difficult for people not involved with the foster care system to understand the motivations for becoming a foster parent. As one respondent stated, “There are some that think foster parents are doing it just for the money. I think most people don't really understand why someone would want to be a foster parent. They don't understand the positive effects a foster parent can have on a child and their birth family, and what they get back (emotionally) in return.”
The two men featured in our previous blog who were formerly in foster care noted additional motivations they perceived for adults wanting to become foster parents, including: feeling bad about the large number of children in care, wanting to help nurture a child while in retirement, a desire for children but an inability to have biological kids, or because they themselves were in foster care. To that point, one of the former foster youth said he would absolutely consider being a foster parent one day, saying “I was blessed to have been adopted to a loving family and I know the feeling of lost hope. Returning the favor or more importantly having the power to change someone’s life for the better is the ultimate dream”.
Unfortunately, misunderstandings regarding the type of people who become foster parents seep into media content, and can dissuade people from wanting to explore fostering. Indeed, another respondent noted how foster care parents are often represented as either “perfect people” or “system milkers”, which just further drives inaccurate stereotypes and prevents viewers from seeing themselves in those roles. Instead, foster care parents want to be “portrayed as multidimensional, from varied backgrounds and economic classes, motivated by caring for kids in care”, and “regular people who desire to help a child in need”.
When media gets it right. The movie “Instant Family” does a terrific job of showcasing “regular people” who decide to foster for a variety of reasons. The film honestly depicts the rollercoaster of emotions, including realistic doubt in their decision to foster. By portraying a relatable, imperfect, but well-intentioned couple, viewers are more likely to see themselves in that situation and consider becoming foster parents.
Overcoming the “evil child snatcher” trope of social workers
Social care workers have one of the most difficult jobs. One respondent mentioned how they are unfortunately part of an overall “failed system”, making their job seemingly impossible at times. Indeed, they are working within a confusing system, in rapidly changing and high-intensity situations. But our respondents noted that the general public really lacks an understanding of what foster care social workers actually do, other than “remove children from their homes”, and simply classify it as a “very difficult job that they themselves would not want to do”. This does not encourage people to enter the job, and media portrayals certainly do not help. Social care workers are often depicted as evil child snatchers or overly do-gooders that few can relate to. The reality is that they are well-intentioned, trained professionals who care about the well-being of children. It’s important that content creators capture this difficulty while still portraying social workers that have a good relationship with the foster youth in their care.
When media gets it right. The social care worker depicted in season three of the television drama “This Is Us” impressively captures the highs and lows of the job, and showcases the benefit of trust built between a worker and child in care.
Working towards a more compassionate lens on birth parents
Media portrayals of birth parents rarely stray from the stereotypes of, as one respondent explained, “bad people who have done horrible things to their children and don’t deserve the chance to make things right or parent their children ever again”, or simply put by another respondent, “awful people”.
The truth is, more often or not, these are people who have had a hard life and a spout of bad luck. Many people live paycheck to paycheck and could also easily fall into a difficult situation. Furthermore, the disease of addiction can become so overpowering that it consumes them and prevents them from being the parent they want to be at that time. They are flawed people, just like everyone.
Our respondents all expressed a desire to see birth parents shown in a more compassionate light. One respondent noted wanting to see them as less pathologized and caricatured. Another said “birth parents are often people with mental health issues, substance abuse problems, who come from their own dysfunctional families, and did not set out to hurt their children. They may not be able to parent them, but they do love them. And it is possible for people to change.” Another mentioned that “most birth parents do not intend to hurt or neglect their children, they over discipline for a myriad of reasons, they are addicted to drugs or homeless because they were barely making it to begin with and had an event that tipped the scales.”
When media gets it right. Season three of “This Is Us” depicts this nuanced role of a birth mother perfectly, showing the desire to be the mom both she (and her daughter) wanted her to be, but doomed by many factors including her own rough upbringing, addictions, and bad partners. Through it all, however, you could see that the love and admiration she had for her daughter was genuine.
Actionable insights for content creators:
Foster parent portrayal: Show relatable characters from a variety of backgrounds (including race, economic, sexual orientation, and cultural). Don’t shy away from them asking taboo questions that potential foster parents might have. Show a realistic experience of the foster parent experience-- the ups and the downs-- but strive for an overall positive outlook.
Social worker portrayal: Make an effort to show individuals who truly care about the child’s well being, and are doing their absolute best working in an extremely complex and sometimes failed system.
Birth parent portrayal: Avoid falling into stereotypes. Give the character the depth and compassion deserved that explains why he or she ended up in this position.
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”