Ask Us Who We Are: Foster Care in Vermont

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Directed by Bess O’Brien
Kingdom County Productions75 minutes. DVD; educational package includes two discussion guides.

 

A young man describes the Christmas he was 8, when his father smashed all his presents.

A teenage boy says he had to be the parent; his father knocked on neighbors’ doors asking for Jerry Seinfeld.

A teenage girl says she was scared of her mother, who was a junkie.

Another girl says she was scared of her mother, who was a prostitute.

These testaments open a compelling film that examines foster care in Vermont through the eyes of foster children, foster parents, birth parents and adoptive parents. Filmmaker Bess O’Brien skillfully weaves their stories together until a nuanced picture appears.

Behind reports of abuse and neglect, the film illustrates the fact that there are many victims – not just the children – and many everyday heroes behind the children who succeed in foster care. Jeff sums up how he felt when his parents gave him away: “It’s the most devastating experience in the world to have your parents reject you.”

Quentin was just as devastated, because he felt he had abandoned his schizophrenic mother.

Cindy smoked crack cocaine; when doctors found it in her little girl’s blood, Brianna was placed in foster care. Cindy describes her despair, facing termination of her parental rights.

The answers come in the homes of relatives or strangers, who may suffer their own traumas. While their son fought in Iraq, Monique and her husband took care of their grandson. When their son returned home, he wouldn’t even look at his boy. The grandparents took custody, at the cost of delayed retirement and strains in their own relationship.

Over a 20-year period, Candy estimates that she has cared for 100 kids. Children removed from their families aren’t “grateful or happy; they’re scared, they’re mad, and they’re sad,” she says. Candy tells her foster kids that she won’t replace their birth mom, but will be “your other mom who’s going to love you as much.”

When Jeremy and Sarah couldn’t have children of their own, they decided to foster younger children, adopting those who couldn’t go home. Returning a little girl to her mother after 14 months was “excruciating.”

Sometimes those who try to help see it as a way to right a wrong that was done to them. Penny recalls her grief when she was separated from her younger sister as a child entering foster care. She and her partner Ann fostered a little girl and her brother who were being reunited – doing for them what no one did for Penny. The girl looked like Penny’s lost sister, and Penny became so attached that she believed the girl was her sister. Hospitalized with post-traumatic stress disorder, Penny was not allowed to return home until her foster children left.

Other stories have happier results, with foster families turned into just families. Having fostered a hundred kids, Candy found a boy who captured her heart the moment he arrived for his 34th foster placement. He agreed to be adopted.

Erin needed to sit between her foster parents on a love seat every night for her first year with them. Erin stayed. As Chris sits between his two adoptive fathers, Cliff and Kelly, he says, “They give me so much. The whole idea that gay people cannot be parents is hogwash.”

Matt’s new mother says she “didn’t want to give him up. I have rocked him for an hour at a time,” which “he didn’t get as a little boy.” The camera lingers on Matt’s tender look at her.

Ashley’s teacher offered her a place to stay and then adopted her. “Seeing my 4-year-old brother when he was born made me want to be a better person for him,” says Ashley.

And there are inspiring transformations. Jeff, whose father destroyed his Christmas gifts, reappears with a picture of his baby girl. “My baby saved my life!” he exclaims.

Some birth parents retrieve their children from foster care; others see the foster families as a better place. Cocaine-free, Cindy gave Brianna “the greatest gift” of staying with her foster parents, who adopted her and invited Cindy to be part of their lives. “What motivates me,” says Cindy, “is knowing that as long as I’m clean and sober, I will always have Brianna in my life.” Several scenes capture Cindy’s warm relationship with Brianna and her new family.

Faces become familiar as stories intertwine.

The film ends with a montage that looks to the future. Several adults call for a sense of community in raising children, or stepping in when a family member falters in childcare. Several foster youths want more input in the foster care system. Other foster veterans want to give back by teaching in the inner city, joining the military, going to college, becoming good parents, looking out for each other, or protecting “everyone and everything that can’t protect itself.”

Instead of self-serving foster parents and damaged kids, O’Brien’s camera records shattering losses and tears, but also celebrates the generosity and kindness in many foster and adoptive parents’ hearts and the courage of birth parents and rejected children who heal and learn to trust.