Hollywood Spotlight

Is the portrayal of child welfare in movies and television helpful or harmful?

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Flip through the channels on television, or browse the schedule of movies at the theater. Chances are, children's issues are prominently featured on screens across the country. While youth have always been featured on the big and small screens, in the last year issues including abuse, neglect, out-of-home care, adoption, and teen pregnancy have been moving to the forefront of Hollywood productions. But as with any other issue, the entertainment industry tends to blur the line between fact and fiction. Is the popularization of child welfare in movies and TV helpful or harmful to the field?

Some experts say that the portrayal of turbulence in a child's life misses the mark by being overdramatized or downplayed for the audience. "I think the tension with the portrayal of child welfare in the media is that it plays to the worst images the public holds about child welfare and stifles any actual conversation," said Ben Tanzer, senior director of strategic communications at Prevent Child Abuse America in Chicago. Janice Goldwater, executive director of Adoptions Together in Maryland, goes so far as to call the depiction of child welfare issues a "betrayal" of child welfare issues because of mixed messages. She says that focusing on prevention and telling the whole story is key to a more accurate and useful portrayal of the field. However, some experts believe that even if the pictures aren't completely accurate, it's good that the entertainment industry is bringing attention to the issues of at-risk children and youth by including plots with vulnerable kids.

Movies

Rhonda Sciortino, a founding board member of the Western Child Welfare Law Center and author of the book From Foster Care to Millionaire, would like to see more movies and TV shows about the foster care system that highlight the "myriad stories of wonderful people who have made the personal sacrifice of time, money, and energy to be a family for kids who had none or whose families couldn't care for them." She says that recent blockbuster movies like Precious and The Blind Side clearly illustrate the power that one person can have in the life of a young person, adding that this is the main message that the media needs to get across. Precious touches many relevant child welfare issues, with a main character who is a teen mother struggling to overcome abuse from her parents, as well as obesity, poverty, and a lack of education. The Blind Side is an adaptation of the true story of football player Michael Oher, who experienced several foster homes and spells of homelessness before being adopted. "This story makes my heart sing and represents what I would like to see more of in the media," Sciortino says.

Sciortino adds that while Precious portrays the abuse that goes on across the country with sometimes painful accuracy-- "Precious is raw, too raw for many former foster kids who have had similar experiences"--it is an important story that needs to be told to raise awareness.

Tanzer offers another opinion about movies like Precious. He believes that Hollywood's focus tends to be on ideas that the public already holds, whether they are right or wrong. He says that even movies that tell a relatively accurate story don't necessarily tell the whole story. "Parents who abuse are portrayed as monsters, with no nuance at all," Tanzer says. "In the case of Precious, which is a terribly moving film with powerful performances across the board, the mother is shown to have little or no humanity at all. These portrayals fail to show or emphasize that the abuser is often also a victim of violence." He goes on to say that in Precious, "this doesn't excuse her inability to take more responsibility of her daughter or her own actions, but if we see the parent as a monster who must be shamed, how can we talk about the kinds of supports parents need?" He explains that perspectives like this can make it challenging for frontline workers and others who would like to have a more realistic conversation about this issue.

Movies like Orphan, in which an adopted child wreaks havoc on a family, play to the fears of their audiences. "Trailers show a cute, sweet thing between the ages of 8 and 10. A social worker adopts her but the level of terror goes up in each scene as the child terrorizes the family," says Goldwater, adding that it turns out that the "Orphan child" wasn't a person at all but an alien. "This movie perpetuates fears about kids in foster care that need parents, especially older kids."

Another fear Tanzer sees the entertainment industry promoting is the fear of strangers, especially in the case of sexual abuse. According to Tanzer, strangers shouldn't be the focus; he says the perpetrator in 90% of child sexual abuse cases is someone the child knows. He believes that the media could tell a fuller story about child abuse and neglect: "One grounded in how child abuse and neglect undermines child development, which in turns undermines community and economic development." He believes this would serve to not only show success stories but also to discuss successful policies and programs.

Goldwater compliments the 2007 film Juno, where a teen mother searches for a couple to adopt her baby, for its more layered approach to adoption: "They showed the complexity of it all and that led to conversation." She adds that Juno also showed that adoption is an option available to and chosen by birth parents who are "appealing human beings" like the title character, someone who is not struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, but wants a better life for her baby than she is able to provide.

Television

Shows about adoption and teen pregnancy have been filling the small screen. Life Unexpected is a sitcom about a 16-year-old who has been moved from one foster home to the next before finding both of her birth parents. Who's Your Daddy, in which an adopted child tries to choose his or her biological father out of a room of 25 contestants for prize money, and Find My Family, which helps birth parents and adoptees find each other, sometimes hide the complex dynamics between adoptees, adoptive families, and biological families. "Shows like that cheapen relationships and diminish the realness of adoptive families," says Goldwater.

Some foster youth say that all too often the media helps to reinforce myths about foster children and adopted children that make the general population think they are all troublemakers and have traumatic histories. From sitcoms to dramas, if the main character is a foster child, he or she is likely the problem child on the program. Amanda, a former foster youth from Kentucky, agrees. "I was pretty happy to see the young doctor on Grey's Anatomy [the character Alex Karev] was a foster kid, but even him--he punches people at work and has issues. We don't all have noticeable issues in adulthood," she says. "Mostly [former foster kids] are portrayed as killers on crime shows, and that's a big problem in my opinion."

Teenage Pregnancy

With reality shows like 16 and Pregnant, and movies like The Pregnancy Pact, based on a true story of high school girls who decided to get pregnant together, the once taboo topic of teen pregnancy is being discussed openly on the big and small screens. Amy Kramer, director of entertainment media and audience strategy at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, believes that it is good for the media to broach the topic. "There are certainly some places where teen pregnancy is portrayed in an important and serious way," she says.

Reality shows like 16 and Pregnant and its spinoff, Teen Mom, are able to show the difficulties of being a young mother. "These shows are good conversation starters, whether you agree or disagree, and let you articulate your own views and values," Kramer says. She explains that programs like these provide a way to begin communication between parents and their children about teen pregnancy.

But Kramer thinks there's still something missing. "For the amount of time pop media spends on sex, love, and relationships, it would be great to see more on prevention when it comes to teen pregnancy." She adds that the media doesn't show a lot of examples of prevention but focuses more on being reactive. Kramer says these shows should discuss pregnancy prevention, as well as the range of options available to today's girls and young women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant.

Media's Influence on Public Opinion

Matt Anderson, a social worker with Tumbleweed Runaway Program in Montana, is producing the upcoming documentary From Place to Place. He says that airing films and stories that focus on child welfare issues like foster care can help improve public perception. "If you show real stories and allow people to see the human side of it, that's a powerful way to effect change," he says. Anderson has a master's degree in social work as well as a background in youth engagement and youth leadership. He's focused on developing his community organizing skills through child welfare reform and filmmaking.

But Kramer doesn't consign much power to the media. "The media on its own doesn't change behavior," she points out, adding that while the media helps to set the social script by using what is perceived as normal circumstances for some children, that's the extent of influence. "Certainly media can be a powerful way to bolster local and individual efforts, but what the media does or does not do will not substitute for live discussions."

Regardless of whether life imitates art or art imitates life, and the degree to which either is true, the answer seems to be that the portrayal of child welfare in the entertainment industry both helps and hurts. More exposure for these issues raises awareness, but it may also stir up negative attitudes and prejudices. To take advantage of the Hollywood spotlight, child welfare agencies and advocates must keep the conversation going off screen as well.

Carisa Chappell is a freelance writer in Bowie, Maryland.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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