Fixing Foster Care Goes Beyond Helping the Kids in It
September 5, 2023 | Shaun Kadlec
I began filming the documentary Possible Selves with the incredible teenagers in the First Star program at UCLA in 2014. First Star supports foster youth during their high school years with the goal of helping them get into college. As I filmed with the students and they shared their experiences, it struck me that many parts of their stories felt like they just didn’t make sense. It wasn’t that they seemed untrue. Coming to this world as a storyteller myself, it felt like many of the stories didn’t make emotional sense.
Why, for example, would a kind and intelligent teenager’s mother, who clearly loves her, brutally beat her in the front yard of their home, prompting the neighbors to call child protective services? Why would a father lock his 14-year-old son out of the house night after night, making him sit in the dark and wait to come in until after his bedtime?
As I did more research, I learned that the vast majority of young people in foster care were placed there because their families abused or neglected them–and for many, that abuse and neglect is connected to a parent’s untreated addiction and/or mental illness.
At this point a light went on for me, which also illuminated parts of my own story.
I have never been in foster care, but I lived through many of the adverse childhood experiences that lead to foster care. My father and older brother had alcohol and drug addiction problems; my mother came out of crushing generational poverty with only a sixth-grade education. Both of my parents struggled with depression, shame, and the persistent cycle of poverty. They are good people who did the best they could, but they were up against so much.
These forces warped my own childhood reality in similar ways that they did for the young people in Possible Selves. My father, who was naturally fun-loving and creative, became cruel and angry when he was drinking. As a young child, I couldn’t make sense of this contradiction.
I heard stories like this again and again. Many of them were much worse than my own. Caregivers losing connection with reality and logic under the effects of drugs, alcohol, and untreated mental illness—and then doing terrible things to their children. These actions often lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) in the children who experience them.
Multiple studies show that as many as 70% of adults with PTSD also struggle with substance use disorders. PTSD can manifest as anxiety, depression, and many other symptoms. Drugs and alcohol may temporarily relieve these symptoms, but in the long term, they only make things worse.
This brings us back to where we started: parents struggling with addiction and mental illness can create trauma in children. This often leads to addiction and PTSD in their children, and so the cycle continues.
Both of my parents experienced severe abuse as children. I believe that my father has suffered with untreated CPTSD since he was a child. We have a good relationship now. My dad is one of the most creative and hard-working people I know, and my mom is one of the kindest and strongest. They did their best to spare me from what they went through as children. Even so, I struggled with alcohol addiction in my 20s and early 30s as I tried to self-medicate my own trauma-related anxiety and depression.
On the bright side, I learned powerful ways to interrupt these cycles.
For myself and many of the young people who appear in Possible Selves, higher education, therapy, and mentorship helped us begin on new paths toward rewarding careers and psychological balance.
In making this film, I learned that consistent, loving care from adults is one of the most powerful forces that can transform a foster youth’s life. Over 400,000 young people are currently in foster care in the United States. They need our immediate support in the form of more foster and adoptive parents as well as mentors, CASAs (court-appointed special advocates), and donors to organizations that support foster youth.
In the longer term, the best way to improve foster care is by keeping children out of the system in the first place. Some initiatives that address the root causes of children needing foster care do the following.
- Promote mental wellness and to provide therapy for families at all income levels.
- Push to decriminalize addiction and to provide respectful treatment.
- Create a world with more equity and inclusion where people have access to meaningful livelihoods and don’t need substances to numb the pain of traumatic inequality.
Yes, that is a tall order. Kids end up in foster care because of some of the deepest dysfunctions in our society. I hope that Possible Selves can play a modest role by sharing the stories of a few amazing young people—and inspire viewers to get involved in whatever ways call to their hearts.
Shaun Kadlec’s film Possible Selves, the winner of the 2023 Media for a Just Society Award, tells the stories of young people growing up in foster care. His first feature-length documentary, Born This Way, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and won awards around the world for its portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community in Cameroon. These films immerse viewers in the lives of the onscreen participants, allowing us to connect deeply with them and to discover many layers of meaning in their lives. To learn more about Shaun, visit www.shaunkadlec.com.