BY CHARLES INNIS
NORTH BROOKLYN — A new HBO documentary about foster care set in Los Angeles could be just as easily set in Brooklyn.
North Brooklyn Chamber screened “Foster” at the Wythe Hotel on Oct. 21, and filmmakers Deborah Oppenheimer and Mark Jonathan Harris answered questions from the audience, addressing the film’s largely-hopeful message and how it can relate to Brooklyn.
The film follows a handful of kids, parents, social workers and youth advocates within the foster care system, dispelling the notions that all foster kids are unruly and disconnected, that all parents entering the system are uncaring and that social workers are unsympathetic.
It conveys a nuanced picture: While the punitive, one-size-fits-all foster system may be flawed, it’s mostly comprised of individuals who do their best to help families, given little time and resources.
“This was a subject that was still greatly misunderstood and not really treated well,” said director and producer Mark Jonathan Harris, explaining why he made the film.
When he and Oppenheimer began work on “Foster,” they struggled to build trust with people. They spent two years developing relationships with lawyers, members of the Los Angeles court system and the Department of Children and Family Services.
Jess Dannhauser, president of the New York-based, family services non-profit Graham Windham, said the film humanizes the foster system.
“I work with 500 young people in foster care here in the New York City area, and these stories are very representative,” said Dannhauser, who moderated the screening’s Q&A.
“Our kids often say that they are the only kids who get judged on the worst day of their life,” he said.
The film shows how closely monitored foster kids are by social workers and judges. While quarrels between siblings are commonplace in traditional family homes, rule-breaking or fighting at a group home can lead a foster kid further into the criminal justice system, as it does with one character.
Similar situations occur to New York’s foster kids, said Dannhauser, but several non-profits are currently working to prevent at-risk families from entering the court system to begin with.
“In the ‘90s, we had 45,000 kids in foster care. Now, it’s down to 8,300,” he said. “It’s fundamentally changed.”
One of the film’s storylines follows Dasani, a teenage boy on probation for marijuana use, who is reluctant to enter trauma-induced therapy in order to process a horrifying childhood experience. He ends up finding catharsis on his own terms, writing a rap song about his life in a teen support group.
Dasani’s story reflects a growing trend in foster youth support happening now, in Brooklyn, said Dannhauser. A growing number of organizations work to provide families at-risk of entering the system a greater sense of agency.
He points to a family enrichment center in East New York, called The C.R.I.B., as an example.
Paul Samulski, president of the North Brooklyn Chamber, helped organize the film screening. He provided entry for kids from the non-profit NYC Together, who watched from the back of the theater.
At the Q&A session, an audience member asked what could be done to stop children from entering an abusive foster home.
“There are a lot of people who have eyes on families and kids,” replied Oppenheimer.
“It’s not just social workers,” she added. “It’s doctors, neighbors, people in congregations, people in the community, who need to pay attention and see warning signs to recognize something is going on.”