From Bambi to Frozen, Disney is no stranger to creating movies where parents die.
Annie is a classic that exposed the hard-knock life in an orphanage, and Matilda ends with the title character being adopted by her teacher. And the Emmy-nominated Judging Amy gave viewers a look at the role of social workers at family courts.
But Hollywood had never quite nailed the foster care experience until The Fosters, a TV show on ABC about a family raising one biological and four adoptive and foster children. First aired in 2013, the show was one of the first realistic portrayals of foster care and adoption in popular culture.
Over the next five years, This Is Us, Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Fire, The Great Gilly Hopkins, Instant Family and more have followed the same trend — one advocates are hoping will continue.
“We’re at this golden moment for foster care awareness,” said Jennifer Perry, executive director of the Children’s Action Network and co-founder of FosterMore. “There is a whole lot going on around an issue that prior to this really languished in the shadows.”
Since 2013, FosterMore has worked to change the overall conversation and perception of foster care, including its depiction in Hollywood. Over the past few years the organization has been reaching out to television and movie producers, creating dialogue and offering to help connect them to experts along the way. For example, FosterMore’s social media team worked with ABC to create educational content after a foster care storyline ran on Grey’s Anatomy and helped organize a series of tweets from show c0-star and foster parent Alex Blue Davis. She said there’s “really no better avenue than television and film” to get these conversations going.
Perry pointed to the TV show Good Times as an example. In 1974, after airing an episode about the prevalence of hypertension in black males, CBS reportedly received hundreds of calls from people wanting more information.
She wants to do the same for issues surrounding foster care.
“We’re at a place where many, many, many more people are very aware of the foster care issue but many aren’t,” Perry said.
Denise Goodman, a leading expert in foster parent recruitment, said as these shows and movies become more realistic they are helping agencies reach out to people in their community.
“Agencies are trying to use those movies as a way to shed a light on what the needs are in their community,” Goodman said.
Lisa Cohen, program director at Cayuga Centers in South Florida, is one foster care agency capitalizing on the trend.
“I keep telling everyone please watch that show [The Fosters],” she said. “I’m a very, very big fan of how they have portrayed the concept of foster care.”
Cohen said she’s a big movie and TV buff and she noticed that prior to The Fosters, shows would allude to foster care or adoption, but often wouldn’t directly talk about it and its issues.
Cohen said she also liked how the show directly dealt with the issues that those involved in foster care know all too well, including trauma, social policies, teens and how “one positive person in their [foster youth] life that could change the whole trajectory of their future.”
So, when This Is Us started including a storyline involving foster care, Cohen said a lot of people in her office got excited. She said it’s so realistic that Cohen’s office often talks about how a character on the show will often say something that sounds exactly like things said by one of the agency’s youth.
Cohen said the realistic portrayals of foster care helps prepare potential foster parents for what actually will happen.
“I think it does show that these kids don’t move into your home instantly and love you and hug you and say, ‘Oh, this is wonderful, thank you so much,’” Cohen said.
Goodman said that’s a good thing, adding that children usually aren’t appreciative of their parents until they are much older or are parents themselves.
But not all characters in the foster care storyline are getting equal treatment. Advocates say it’s not uncommon for birth parents to get a storyline involving extreme violence toward the adoptive parents, like in the lifetime movie A Deadly Adoption starring Will Ferrell, trying to get the baby back, like in Glee or simply being too young.
Jessalynn Bills Speight, founder and president of Tied At The Heart, a Utah nonprofit that provides retreats for women who have relinquished their children to adoption, wants Hollywood to do their research when it comes to these storylines because, she said, these stereotypes aren’t the reality.
“To accurately portray a story about a birth parent, one would need to spend some time reading actual stories from birth parents,” Bills Speight said. “At least trying to grasp the pain, heartache and grief that we endure for the rest of our lives after placing a child for adoption.”
This Is Us, which showed a more complex story involving love and pain, she said, was on the right track. But this, she said, is an outlier.
She still holds out hope for the future of these storylines, and that Hollywood will look to tell deeper stories.
“We aren’t all incapable drug addicts, we are average everyday humans who got thrust into a hard situation. We are mothers, sisters, wives, professionals, successful, adventurous and loving humans,” Bills Speight said. “The love for our children and the yearning to hold them never goes away.”
And there’s something to tell all sides of the foster care story. Showing exactly how foster care works help alleviate fears of the unknown, something Sean Anders, writer and director of Instant Family, experienced himself.
“I was really surprised that every step of the way was a complete mystery to me,” Anders said. “I had never really seen this story told the way that it really happens.”
Instant Family, a comedy about a couple learning about the world of foster care when they take in a 15-year-old and her two younger siblings, was inspired by Anders’ own life. But the director spent a lot of time talking to other families, hoping to include as many experiences of foster care as possible.
But the movie, which came out last week, almost never made it to the big screen.
Allison Maxon, chief operations officer at the National Center on Adoption and Permanency who worked with Anders and his family, said a lot of studios didn’t want to touch a comedy about such a serious topic as foster care. But Anders insists that much of what he went through with his family was comical and joyful and that was missing from Hollywood.
“Instant Family is hopefully going to be what we call the ‘game changer’ where we open people’s hearts and minds to foster care and adoption,” Maxon said.
Over three years, there were numerous people with personal experience in foster care hired to help Instant Family. A woman who was adopted as a teen from foster care was hired on to help form the teenage character. And during the scene in the movie where the parents are at a foster recruitment fair, all the children and families seen in the background are adopted, including many adopted from foster care, Maxon said.
Anders said he hopes the movie confronts a lot of misconceptions about foster care and who can be a foster parent.
“I think when people hear about families that adopt from foster care that they have this feeling of, ‘Oh, those people are special,’” he said. “And that’s really not the case. All of us that do it are regular people.”
But advocates say there’s still a long way to go.
Orphan, Before I Wake and The Omen all depict foster and adoptive children as evil. Hannibal Lecter, Billy Chapman from Silent Night, Deadly Night and Darth Vader are all fictional characters whose parents died and the characters grew up to be serial killers.
“We need to work on the villain not being the foster youth,” Perry of FosterMore said. “And then we need those stories of resilience.”