Queen Sugar, a television show on OWN, premieres its final season where it concludes the story of three siblings, Nova, Charley and Ralph Angel Bordelon, who inherit a sugar cane plantation after their father’s death. This final season highlights family drama, the foster care system, and the life-altering effects of having a criminal history.
After living in the Los Angeles County foster care system for over 16 years in various foster homes, group homes, and shelters, I am no stranger to Queen Sugar’s child welfare storyline. Similar to Ralph Angel’s involvement with the criminal justice system in Queen Sugar, my father is facing a lifetime in prison, so I have perspective on how a close relative in prison has impacted my life, and the lasting effects of incarceration. Queen Sugar’s final season does a good job of portraying the child welfare system with its final episodes showing how going to prison can have effects on you and your loved ones’ lives even after you get out.
One thing Queen Sugar has done throughout its multiple seasons is show the effects in real time of time served in prison. For example, after exiting prison, Ralph Angel tries to be a father to his child. However, at times, his past still haunts him. Ralph Angel’s inability to work full time on the farm due to the need to submit a pay stub to parole is something similar I’ve experienced in real life. My father-in-law also couldn’t work a full-time job because the court system required him to take parenting and drug classes. The classes took up so much time that it was impossible for him to have a full-time job, which made his income limited. As a result, it took him much longer to “get back on his feet” and get custody of his children. I personally know a few youth, myself included, whose parents are still serving time in prison and/or have completely lost their rights as a parent. Unfortunately, for a lot of youth, their incarcerated loved one doesn’t come back in their lives.
In season 7 of Queen Sugar, we see similar effects of the carceral system and the child welfare system take place. A social worker shows up because they have suspicion that Joaquin and Dante are living without an adult in the home. It turns out their mom was picked up by ICE and sent back to Mexico. Their father was incarcerated in prison with no news on when he would be released. Ralph Angel’s aunt, Aunt Vi, and his aunt’s husband, Hollywood, quickly offered to take them in, but the social worker needed to run a background check on all adults in the house. This is problematic because Ralph Angel is living in the home and will fail the background check due to his past prison record. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in the child welfare system. I personally know of several foster youth that may have had somewhere to live with a relative, family friend, or neighbor, but couldn’t stay with them because someone in the house had something on their record. Even a minor offense from several years ago can inhibit someone’s ability to be a placement for a child in need.
Aunt Vi anticipates that Dante and Joaquin’s father will come back into the picture to get custody of them, but they know the system can be “broken” and they may have to stay with them for a while. The social worker explains that they can stay only if Ralph Angel finds another place to live. Luckily, Ralph Angel and Darla are able to move out, so the boys can stay with Aunt Vi. In the case of Queen Sugar, Dante and Joaquin had a fortunate outcome, unlike most in the child welfare system.
Although Queen Sugar’s storyline portrays some things that happen in foster care, I wish the story line could have been pushed more in its portrayal. There are so many good, bad, and ugly things that actually happen in foster care. One thing I would have liked to see more is the impact foster care has on the children themselves in the long run, like the lasting traumas that are often left into adulthood from foster care. An example is the fact that Joaquin and Dante’s father was able to have a “chance” at reentering society, leaving him with the opportunity to raise his kids. For some youth who have a currently or formerly incarcerated parent, they never get to see their parents or are forbidden to have contact with them after they’ve been incarcerated. Even though Queen Sugar shows one way the child welfare system can be portrayed and does an accurate job, it is important to note there are over 400,000 kids in foster care, and over 400,000 different ways that the child welfare storyline in Queen Sugar could have aired. Because each youth has a different experience, there is always a good, bad, and ugly story. Even though some good experiences were shown in Queen Sugar, some youth also have very bad experiences in foster care, which is not shown in its final season. Foster care is very complex, and there are so many systems to navigate when you’re in it. I hope more television shows like Queen Sugar offer opportunities to show the complexities of the child welfare system.
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