The Complex Reality of America's Foster Care System

"Being in a group home is like lockdown… It's like having a big old chain attached to your leg." This new documentary reveals the hidden reality of the children, parents, and caretakers inside America's foster care system.

An Unprecedented Look at America's Foster Care System

Over 440,000 minors in the U.S. are in foster care according to AFCARS. The complexity of the system is the topic of Foster, a new HBO documentary. “Foster” follows children and teens in the Los Angeles County foster care system, and those who have gone through it, but the inspiration for the film started with just one child. Oppenheimer and Harris worked together on the Academy Award-winning into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. Which looked at rescue efforts that moved Jewish children living in Nazi Germany to the U.K.

About 25 years ago, producer Deborah Oppenheimer met a 6-year-old boy named Patrick, while she was volunteering at a public school. “I asked his story and discovered that he had been removed from his parents, he was living in an orphanage in Hollywood,” says Oppenheimer, who recalls “sobbing” after returning home that day. “I had never encountered a foster youth in the system before, and I resolved to continue to work with him.” That experience became the inspiration for the film, which was acquired by HBO out of Sundance before it was set to premiere. However, Oppenheimer and director Mark Jonathan Harris intended to make a decade ago, but their schedules didn’t collide until 2014. The filmmakers, best known for the Oscar winning documentary “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport”, have long been fascinated in exploring issues facing children.

The foster care system illustrated many of these survivor problems, Harris says, and they wanted to unpack the stigmas associated with it. “We spent about two years researching this and getting acquainted with everyone and getting them to trust us. We wanted to dispel some of the stereotypes and myths about foster care. A lot of people approach foster care with judgments — judgments about kids, judgment about the parents, about the social workers. And those are generally negative stereotypes.”

With Foster, they say the many reasons kids enter the foster care system speak to larger social issues in America.