Filmmakers Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer Show All Sides of the Foster Care System
BY ALLIE WAXMAN
The pair behind the documentary FOSTER discuss how it only takes one adult to have a positive impact on a child in foster care.
The misconceptions about the foster care system are seemingly endless — and are rarely challenged. But in the new documentary FOSTER, Academy Award®-winning writer-director Mark Jonathan Harris and producer Deborah Oppenheimer look at all sides of the foster care system in an attempt to challenge these preconceived notions and inspire change.
Harris and Oppenheimer spoke about the challenges facing the foster care system, how they arrived at this topic as filmmakers, and what about the film gives them hope.
HBO: How did you first come to the subject of foster care as filmmakers?
Deborah Oppenheimer: I have one of these children in my life. I met him when he was six years old and I was volunteering in a local public school. His name is Patrick. It’s been 25 years; he’s now 31 years-old and I view him as my son and he views me as his mother. After having such a good experience working with Mark on [HBO Documentary] Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, we were batting around ideas, and this is one of the subjects we discussed.
Mark Jonathan Harris: A lot of my work as a children’s novelist and as a filmmaker has been about how children deal with traumatic issues that are beyond their control. Issues that are created by adults. Into the Arms of Strangers was about children separated from their families by war. This is another example of children removed from their families by circumstances that they don’t control.
HBO: How did you choose the subjects of the film?
Mark Jonathan Harris: We did two years of research and came up with certain representative stories of foster care. We filmed in Los Angeles because we wanted to make a film that would follow stories over a long period of time.
Deborah Oppenheimer: These stories are representative of cases that could take place anywhere. We looked at the earliest time a child could enter the system to what it looks like when you’re exiting the system. We felt a responsibility to have a depiction of a foster parent because there’s a crisis in this country with the number of foster homes available for foster children. And then we found this extraordinary young woman, Jessica, who experienced so many aspects of the system and wanted to blow up the entire system and wound up coming to the attention of a nonprofit called the Alliance for Children’s Rights. Instead, she went on to get her Master’s and is now working to reform from within. Our final story is a boy who encounters the juvenile justice system because he’s in the foster care system.
HBO: Were there some stories that were more difficult to tell than others?
Mark Jonathan Harris: All the stories were difficult because they all reflect painful struggles. There’s a scene in the film where Dasani’s lawyer and caseworker are interviewing him about his past and they’re asking him some simple questions and he breaks out into this cold sweat and he says, “please stop.” We didn’t know all the circumstances of his earlier trauma but you can see the present effect it has on him.
Deborah Oppenheimer: Mary’s story is difficult because she never achieved permanent placement. You look at her and you can’t fathom how a child like that can not find a forever family.
HBO: Was there anything you learned about the foster care system that gives you hope?
Deborah Oppenheimer: We learned that one consistent, caring adult can make all the difference in a child’s life. That certainly was the case in my life with Patrick.
Mark Jonathan Harris: There are so many misconceptions of the social work system and we were happily surprised by the number of dedicated people working in it — social workers, advocates, judges, attorneys. We’re hoping to change these negative perceptions. There’s no question the system isn’t perfect, but the problems of foster care are a reflection of the larger problems in our society.