foster youth

There’s More to the Picture”: What the adults of Foster Care want content creators to know

“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

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.

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”

Advancing the Science of Digital Games for Children’s Learning and Development 

Advancing the Science of Digital Games for Children’s Learning and Development 

You walk into a classroom and you notice every fourth grader sitting at their desk holding an iPad and tilting it back and forth as if attempting to balance an invisible ball on it. You hear sounds coming from the children that signify their intense captivation: “Oh I almost got that one.” “Aw, how could I have missed that?” “Yes, got it!” You look over a student’s shoulder and notice a ball, with a fraction written inside it, bouncing on top of a thick line at the bottom of the screen in a forest-like setting. The student is tilting the iPad until the ball falls onto the line. When the ball fails to land on the correct spot, tiny marks appear on the line, which seem to serve as hints. Their teacher walks over to you and says, “Can you believe that this game Motion Math is teaching them fractions?” 

Motion Math and other commercially available educational games have entered classrooms across the country, with research demonstrating benefits of digital game play for K-16 students across a variety of academic subjects, including mathematics, science, and social studies. For example, a study showed that fourth graders who played Motion Mathfor 20 minutes a day for just 5 days outperformed a control group on a fractions test and expressed more favorable attitudes and confidence towards learning fractions. Another study found that third graders who played digital math games such as Motion Math, performed similarly on math tests compared to a control group that had completed digital worksheets. However, the former was associated with higher levels of enjoyment and engagement and children were more likely to play with math games when given several other options during free time. 

Game-based learning is not only limited to educational games, but can also be extended to commercial simulation games such as SimCity and Minecraft. For example, one controlled study found that adolescents demonstrated an increased understanding of urban and civic issues after several weeks of building residential, commercial, public, and industrial city structures inSimCity. Similarly, Minecraft, has been used in schools across the world to support visualization in a wide range of academic content areas including spatial geometry and ancient history. Although there are relatively few controlled studies examining the benefits of Minecraft, a study of college students found that there are several social benefits to the digital game (and other multiplayer digital games) such as improved collaboration and adaptability skills and resourcefulness. Recent case studies suggest that Minecraftand associated forums may also provide supportive contexts for children with autism to engage with peers and for learners of English as a second language to develop communication skills. Such findings are not unexpected, as game play has long served as a social lubricant and tool for building relationships among people of all ages. 

For commercial digital games to contribute effectively to student learning in school settings, professional development may be needed where teachers learn game mechanics and about the participatory culture of game play. Indeed a recent report suggested that K-8 teachers who self-identified as “gamers” were more likely to include digital games for learning in their classes, whereas teachers who did not use games often reported being unsure how to integrate games into the curriculum. Although 74% of teachers reported using digital games in their classroom, only 5% indicated use of commercial video games.  For the most part, teachers tended to use traditional drill-and-practice educational games in their classes as opposed to immersive games designed for entertainment. 

Despite children’s nearly continuous access to digital games via the Internet and their popularity, there remains a paucity of research on the cognitive effects of digital game play for preadolescent youth. As emphasized in a recent Society for Research in Child Development policy report, more research is needed to identify the specific features of digital games that foster cognitive skills development and motivation. Value-added research, comparing minimally different versions of the same game to determine if specific features enhance learning outcomes, needs to be extended to children, as most studies to date have involved college students. As an example, research on game-based multimedia lessons for plant biology, conducted with both seventh graders and college students, demonstrated advantages for inclusion of an animated pedagogical agent who spoke to the game-player as they engaged in the science activity. In a similar vein, research with toddlers has shown that familiarizing them with the featured character of an instructional math video enhanced concept learning as compared to children who did not have prior exposure to the character in the video. Such findings suggest that forming parasocial relationships with on-screen characters while engaging in game play or other multimedia instruction may foster children’s learning and retention of information. 

Overall, digital game play offers a multitude of opportunities for children to learn, but it is necessary for content creators to create appropriate content that is based on empirical research. Building a strong evidence base for optimizing digital games for learning can only be accomplished through dedicated funding. In February 2019, the Children and Media Research Advancement (CAMRA) Act was introduced to Congress with the aim of providing federal funding for scientific investigations of the impact of technology on children’s socio-emotional, physical, and cognitive development. Unfortunately, passage of this bill has stalled. Funding CAMRA is a first step in recognizing at a national level the importance of digital games as a critical context for children’s development and for building partnerships between content creators and researchers aimed at establishing best practices for digital game play in schools and extra-curricular programs. 

Patricia J. Brooks & Maya C. Rose

College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNY

“We’re Not Broken” - What two former foster youth want content creators to know

“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:

Damaged

Helpless

Broken

Problematic

Heavily Traumatized

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

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.

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”

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