Director Stephanie Wang-Breal’s “Tough Love” follows the stories of two birth parents working to get their children back from the foster care system.
The documentary’s subjects, Hasna “Hannah” Siddique and Patrick Brown, are seen struggling to get their children back from the foster care system, and much of the action is shot in Seattle’s Family Treatment Court, a realm where audio and visual recording privileges must be given by the court’s presiding judge.
“Lots of parents are trying to get their kids home,” Wang-Breal said. The documentary covers an angle that she says many people don’t think about.
Wang-Breal filmed Siddique, who was living in New York, between 2011 and 2013. Siddique’s two children had been placed in foster care, and she was pregnant with her third child.
New York has presumptively open juvenile dependency courts. Entrance to most cases is open to the public. As in Seattle, filming in court requires special permissions from the judge.
Although Hannah and her husband were willing to be filmed for the documentary, Wang-Breal said she faced “many, many, many bureaucratic challenges” in New York trying to film court hearings.
“There’s a knee-jerk reaction in the system to confidentiality,” said Jess Dannhauser, the president and CEO of Graham-Windham, a child welfare organization located in New York.
A history of journalists’ often myopic focus on the most horrific child-care related cases, he said, has caused “a fear that opening yourself up to that is going to be met by a level of sensationalism that doesn’t recognize complexity.”
“I also think that the general public needs some exposure to what happens in these family courts,” Dannhauser said. “Transparency in general is something that keeps systems from falling into bad patterns.”
Wang-Breal was unable to get access to the hearings in New York City so then went to Seattle’s Family Treatment Courts. FTCs are voluntary courts that work with birth parents through “increased court participation, chemical dependency and alcohol treatment, judicial monitoring of their sobriety and individualized services to support the entire family,” according to the King County Court website.
Judge Patricia Clark, the chief judge for the Juvenile Division of the King County Superior Court, started FTCs in 2002. Clark granted Wang-Breal access that helps the film paint a clearer picture of the system.
Juvenile dependency courts openness varies by state. Most states do not allow the general public to watch dependency court proceedings without special permission, meaning they are “presumptively closed.”
Even in other states where dependency courts are “presumptively open,” audio and video recording privileges are often dependent on the presiding judge. Washington and New York both have presumptively open courts, according to Fostering Media Connections’ 2012 “A Watched Systems Forum.”
“[Clark] said to me, ‘You can go into my courtroom, I have nothing to hide,’” Wang-Breal said. “That was the first time someone had said that to me.”
Wang-Breal met the film’s second subject, Brown, in Clark’s court. Although most families didn’t want to be filmed outside of court, Wang-Breal said, Brown agreed to it.
Partway through Brown’s case, Clark took leave of her position due to health reasons. She was replaced by Judge Julia Garratt, who let Wang-Breal continue documenting Brown’s case in the courtroom.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation will screen parts of “Tough Love” at the National Reunification Month Reception and Policy Discussion on Capitol Hill. The event takes place June 17 and free tickets can be found online.
“[‘Tough Love’] brought in a lot of elements that we think are important in the discussion of child welfare,” said Norris West, the director of strategic communications at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He noted that the film highlighted the “many stakeholders in the child welfare system,” including child advocates, caseworkers and family court judges.
“It takes you into courtrooms where parents are involved in trying to tell their story,” he said. “Basically where they’re trying to get their act together.”
“Tough Love” will be shown nationwide on PBS’ POV program July 6 at 10 p.m EST.; it premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in 2014.
Meiling Bedard is a journalism intern for “The Imprint” and a junior at Boston University.