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‘America’ Takes on the Foster Care System

March 5, 2009

 

Someone to Love

Someone to Love

Last night Lifetime Television aired an encore presentation of its original movie, America, a story of a teenaged youth caught in the web of the foster care system.  Based on the book “America” by E.R. Frank and executive produced by Rosie O’Donnell, America gives a voice to the hundreds of thousand children who slip between the cracks of broken homes and find themselves in search of self, home, and family.

The story opens with an emotionally withdrawn America (Philip Johnson) arriving at a Michigan residential treatment facility where he meets and gradually develops a relationship with his psychiatrist, Dr. Maureen Brennan (O’Donnell).  Skeptical of his peers and other adults, America is  resistant to opening up about his past and participating in team-building activities with the other residents.  His  reasoning is portrayed  through a series a flashbacks  in which we come to see that America has been twice abandoned; first by his birth mother, a drug addict, and then by his original foster parents, who rejected him on the basis of his skin color.  

At the center of America’s crisis is his relationship with his favored foster mother, Mrs. Harper (Ruby Dee) and her brother, Reggie (Tim Rhoze).  Supportive and nurturing, Mrs. Harper shows America an unconditional love that he did not receive with his mother and offers to become his adoptive mother.  However, after a failed reunification attempt with his birth mother and a subsequent return to Mrs. Harper’s home, America becomes a victim of child molestation at the hands of Reggie.  His abuse lasts for 6 years eventually causing him to run away, self-medicate through alcohol (introduced to him by his abuser), and attempt suicide.  As America reveals the truth of his painful past in therapy and makes amends with Mrs. Harper he is able to let down his guard and begin to trust once more. 

 

americaandrosie1

America’s story is all too familiar to those who know the ins and outs of the foster care system in this country.  Though Mrs. Harper’s certainly do exist in great numbers they pale in comparison to the number of homes where neglect, substance dependency, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse abound.  Regrettably, in situations like these where the children have no voice emotions are oftentimes displayed through negative behaviors, coping mechanisms, and belief systems that make their navigation through the foster and residential care systems much more difficult.  What happens when once-trusted adults are no longer trustworthy?  Very few foster youth are adopted and become a part of a fragmented system that offers a temporary fix from family-to-family, social worker-to-social worker, until ultimately, the youth “ages-out” of the system and is left to care for self while jobless, homeless, and clueless.  There is more work to do.  

America brilliantly illustrates the dynamics between a therapist and client.   A social worker, I identified most with Rosie O’Donnell’s character who draws America in through a delicate push-pull balance of compassion and challenge.  She comes down to America’s level and is able to connect with him through his recreational interests while at the same time giving just enough tidbits of guidance to draw him closer to self-discovery.  I’ve found that some of my best work with clients came outside of the office where I had to use creativity and spontaneity to facilitate the soul-searching process.  Well done.   And though I found it difficult at times to focus the message rather than the artistic merits of the film (Johnson overacted a bit too much for my taste- but hey, it is a Lifetime movie), I give America 4 Siggy’s for its realistic portrayal of the experiences of foster youth and guided discovery in the therapeutic process.   

For another great big screen depiction of foster youth and the power of therapy be sure to check out Denzel Washington’s directorial debut in Antwone Fisher.

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