HBO’s Foster Doc Shows Ubiquity of Trauma in Foster Care System

Foster Mother Earcylene Beavers and her daughter

In a nerve-wracking moment, Dasani, a teenager in L.A. County foster care, sits before a judge in court. After getting into a fight at a group home, Dasani is on probation and under court supervision—and has once again tested positive for substance use.

Dasani and his attorney try to explain to the judge that counseling will help address the long-term effects of childhood trauma.

“I’m not into it,” the unimpressed judge says. “Don’t make excuses, right?”

This small exchange illustrates an overarching theme in the new HBO documentary, Foster. Children in foster care by definition have experienced trauma, and too often the child welfare system fails to meet their needs—even when those in charge have the best intentions. Trauma-informed care isn’t an “excuse,” as the judge’s comment implies; it’s a lifeline that can provide essential services to children in desperate need.

Directed by Oscar-winning filmmakers Deborah Oppenheimer and Mark Jonathan Harris, Foster provides an inside glimpse into Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the largest county child-protection agency in America. Following five unique stories of children and families involved with DCFS, the documentary interweaves first-hand stories from children, parents, social workers and others with actual footage from court appearances and DCFS interactions.

The result? A candid portrait of individual stories from the 18,000 children in Los Angeles foster care, illustrating greater trends we see in the more than 400,000 children in foster care nationwide. Foster presents an opportunity to raise awareness about the real human stories behind the numbers.

Trauma, sadly, is the glue that holds these stories together—and it’s why trauma-informed services are critical for children in care. Mary, a bright 18-year-old who already beat significant odds by graduating from high school, is shown struggling to do well in college. She reflects on how her mother’s drug use has impacted her own chances at success: “I think being born a drug baby has definitely affected the way I learn,” Mary says. “It’s hard for me to focus. It makes me feel dumb.”

Mary’s experience is far from an anomaly. Nationwide, only about 50% of youth in foster care finish high school by age 18; only about 4% of youth who age out graduate from a 4-year college. Shuffled from one foster placement to the next, children like Mary frequently change schools and quickly fall behind grade level. This not only affects their ability to keep up academically—it hampers their self-esteem and their belief that they can succeed in the first place.

Dasani, we later learn, experienced unbelievable trauma in his childhood. He witnessed the death of his mother, murdered by his father figure. He then cycles through a series of group homes in L.A. County, exposing him to difficult environments where he quickly lands in the juvenile justice system. (Across the country, group homes like Clarinda in Iowa and Glen Mills in Pennsylvania have recently been exposed for allegations of rampant abuse.) Though Dasani successfully completes his court supervision, he continues to move through group homes and struggle with instability.

Speaking in a recent interview, director Mark Harris shared that he wanted to expose how children in foster care are forced to face problems created by adults. These children “sometimes think they’re responsible for being taken away from their families,” Harris says. The physical abuse, neglect, homelessness, and other systemic problems these children experience are the result of systemic social issues, like poverty, racism, and structural inequality.

There is so much more we can do to provide the safety, love and supportive care that our most vulnerable children need. It starts with ensuring our state foster care systems are adequately resourced and held accountable. Legislators in every state and at the federal level must commit to making children a priority.

That means investing in enough caseworkers so that children receive the attention and services they need. It means making sure all children have access to an adequate education, and that they can visit their siblings and family members when appropriate. It also requires us to invest in families and communities to prevent the need for many children to enter foster care in the first place. Ultimately, we need to hold governments accountable for keeping kids safe and healthy so that youth like Mary and Dasani have a chance to thrive.