After three years working with a developmentally delayed child, I picked up my phone to hear a little voice saying, “Mama.” This was Ana’s first word and her foster mother had called me, her Court Appointed Special Advocate, to share the experience.
As a CASA volunteer, I’ve spent years working with children, their families and the court system to help find children a permanent home, good educational opportunities and needed medical and social services. As I heard Ana find her voice, I wondered how, and whether, other foster youth found theirs.
I decided to answer this question using the tools I knew best – animation and film. Foster youth often have a blank slate in their lives when names, addresses, homes and schools are a blur, when there’s no one to take home videos or photos of them, or to save school projects and old report cards. As an animator myself, I wanted to use animation to fill this blank canvas and recreate youth’s memories; to give foster youth a voice by allowing them to share their stories.
I reached out to foster youth via social media and received an overwhelming response. In a few quick months, I had collected far more stories than could possibly fit into a single film, so the project grew – and interest in the project grew along with it.
Now, more than two years later, I’m collaborating with others to not just create an animated documentary film but a whole series of live-action documentary shorts films as well, each profiling an individual youth’s journeys through the foster care system. Although the youth we’re working with currently live in the United States, their stories take place globally. Some of our interviewees include Fekri, a young man who was sold out of Tunisia for $100 on his 5th birthday and brought to the United States four years later by an abusive foster mother; Ashley, a Native American who converted to Islam to escape the alcoholism which plagued her family and left her in foster care; and Juliet, whose father separately abandoned his three young daughters – one in Vietnam and two in the United States.
No matter where the stories took places, the underlying issues remained the same. Each youth we spoke to talked about loneliness, the act of constantly being moved from place to place, and their struggles with forgiveness.
“It’s a really lonely feeling, it’s a really lonely way of growing up.... When you are a foster kid, it’s something you don’t want to admit to,” said one of our interviewees.
Although many youth had mixed feelings about the foster care system itself, almost everyone had someone they attributed their success to, whether it was a foster parent, mentor, social worker, teacher, school or agency.
“If there is anything that I could ever say to my foster mom, Emma, I would just say thank you. I owe my life to you,” said Exavier during his interview. Exavier was born in prison, and his foster mom, Emma, was the only real parental figure he ever had. He credits her love and teachings to the success he has achieved today. “When I graduated from Law School, they only give you one tassel. They gave me two tassels, one by accident, so the tassle that I had in my hat… I took it and planted in her grave site. ‘This is yours, this belongs to you, you helped me to be this man, so you deserve this honor.’”
The strength, willpower, and courage of these youth, and the many others like them, are exactly why these stories need to be shared. We believe every child can find role models in our interviewees and can benefit from hearing their stories of perseverance and survival.
For more information about FCFCEP, visit www.fostercarefilm.com and follow the Foster Care Film on Facebook at www.facebook.com/fostercarefilm and on Twitter @FosterCareFilm. You can also watch short clips from the project on YouTube and Vimeo or check out a trailer of the first live-action short film, Feeling Wanted, to be released in 2015.