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1:14 pm
Mon June 3, 2013

Foster Families Take Center Stage

Originally published on Fri June 28, 2013 10:42 am

This summer, NPR is taking a closer look at media for kids, taking it as seriously as what's offered to adults. Our first piece looks at a new show starting Monday night on ABC Family.

The Fosters could not be more literally named. It's about a foster family with two moms: one black, one white. They're parenting a houseful of teenagers-- biological, adopted and fostered, from different cultural and ethic backgrounds. The first episode begins with a new kid, Callie, stumbling into the family, bruised physically and emotionally by the foster care system's inadequacies.

But is The Fosters realistic? I watched it with a real foster family in Washington, D.C.

"Oh God. A hundred percent," says Jamie Smith, an 18-year-old foster kid who sat riveted though the show with her friend Robert Garris and his two foster moms, Meg Gibbon and Angela Pelletier. All of them appreciated how the show handled foster kids' conflicted feelings about their birth parents as well as its sensitive depiction of showing up in a strange home, not knowing where you'll sleep, and even coping with abuse.

Naturally, The Fosters doesn't get everything right. Gibbon and Pelletier snickered a little about Callie's bureaucracy-free entrance into the family.

"The reality is, if they adopted the other kids five years ago, they're not still a certified foster home," Gibbon notes.

"They could have recertified, though!" Smith countered. But 17-year-old Garris disagreed. "Thirty hours; they didn't do all that."

It's safe to assume no one wants to watch a show about the drama of getting recertified. But the foster care system is filled with intensely moving stories of conflict and messy emotions. So why haven't there been more movies and TV shows about it?

"I think it's hard for us as a culture to look at the ways that we're failing," reflects one of the show's creators, Peter Paige. "We're failing some kids. There are kids without homes. How is that okay?"

You might remember Paige from his role as Emmett Honeycutt in the Showtime series Queer As Folk. He and co-creator Bradley Bredeweg were originally interested in creating a show that would star him as a gay dad. But there are plenty of gay dads on TV right now in Modern Family and The New Normal. Paige serves on the board of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, and it was there he learned about a program for gay foster kids.

"I'll never forget the day you came back and told me about it," remembers Bredeweg. "And you got emotional, which in turn I got emotional and it sort of forced us to move in this direction."

They two sold the concept of a multicultural foster family to ABC Family. Jennifer Lopez, the singer, signed on as an executive producer. Joanna Johnson was a logical choice to run the show. She's a lesbian mom in a multicutural household — she's white, her wife is Latina and their two adopted kids are biracial. She says The Fosters is filled with details from her home life, like a moment when the moms have had a hard day. They're in bed, back to back, too tired to talk. Then one reaches out and they just hold hands.

"Which is a moment that happens sometimes," Johnson says. "When you're so spent from all the energy you give to your children and work and life and you need your space but just want to be connected."

(Side note: Johnson has a parallel career as an actor with a long-running recurring role on the soap opera The Bold and The Beautiful. She played twins, then one of the twins died, then the other became a lesbian mom. "Where'd you get that idea?" Johnson says she cracked to the show's producers when that particular development was introduced.)

Among foster child advocates who've seen the show already, Susan Punnett found The Fosters completely compelling. "I watched it twice, actually," she says. "I got totally hooked."

Punnett runs a group called Family and Youth Initiative that connects foster teenagers with potential adoptive families. She says she's used to seeing kids without families vilified in popular culture, as in the 2009 movie Orphan, or simply ignored. She believes The Fosters provides a more nuanced view of older kids in foster care, and what it's like to parent them.

"There's an assumption that they're difficult," she says. "That it's too late to mold them, to turn them into who we think we want our children to be."

But, Punnett says in fact, older kids can be especially loving. They don't take love for granted. Often she says, they're desperately hungry for it. 17-year-old Robert Garris says it wasn't something he expected when he moved in with his current foster parents, Angela and Meg.

"Having so much — people care for you. I never had all that," he says. "Sometimes it's overwhelming. It's also good."

His friend Jamie Smith says The Fosters illustrated something important: "That it's okay to be in foster care, and it's okay to be foster parents."

By the way, Smith added, if The Fosters' producers ever need real foster kids for special guest appearances — they can just call her and her friend Robert Garris. They're available.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

This month, NPR is putting a special focus on media for young people, from animated movies for toddlers to playground equipment for schools, to this next story about a TV show that premieres tonight on the ABC Family Channel. It's called "The Fosters," and its main character is someone you don't often see on screen, a teenager in foster care. She ends up in a family with two moms: one's black, one white. They are ready have a biological son and two adopted Latino children.

NPR's Neda Ulaby watched the show with a real foster family.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: "The Fosters" is supposed to be just as relatable as the Cleavers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE FOSTERS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Did you take your pill, sweet knucklehead?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm on it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Really, like you're on the toes? Let's go. Let's go.

ULABY: It's a typical morning chaos in the Foster household, teenagers gulping down breakfast, parents rushing to get to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE FOSTERS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Backpack. Backpack.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Yeah, I saw...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Everybody give me a yes.

ULABY: Then an interloper shovels in. Callie is the new foster kid. She's sweet faced, shell-shocked and surly. She beelines for the coffee. The family is horrified or thrilled by this challenge to the rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE FOSTERS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Can I have some coffee, too?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No.

ULABY: That's a completely relatable moment for a real foster family watching the show right now in the Washington, D.C. living room.

JAMIE SMITH: Kids can't have coffee.

ULABY: Eighteen-year-old Jamie Smith is a foster kid hanging out with her friend Robert Garris and his two foster moms, Meg Gibbon and Angela Pelletier. Smith says the show nails what it's like, as it's called, to be in-care.

SMITH: I gave it a hundred percent.

ULABY: Like the way the show handles the kids' complicated feelings about their birth parents.

MEG GIBBON: The fact that they had that in the show felt real to me because it's his issue. We see you guys struggle with that, right?

ULABY: It has been a struggle for Jamie Smith.

SMITH: When I was younger, around like 11, my mom and I would do visits every week. She was a little bit on some other stuff. So she was having a struggle and she was in rehab.

ULABY: On the show, the idea of meeting their biological mom is a problem between the two adopted siblings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE FOSTERS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: See, I knew you wouldn't understand.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: You want me to understand that this woman is a monster? She abandoned us. She left us.

ULABY: And she bails in this episode when it's time to meet her daughter. Jamie Smith can relate.

SMITH: I've had that exact same experience where I'm crying 'cause I was very upset that my mom would not show up to the visits. I mean, week after week, it was very disappointing. So that was definitely a realistic point.

ULABY: Also realistic: How it feels for Callie, the main teenager on the show, to arrive in a strange home not knowing where she'll sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE FOSTERS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Do you have a toothbrush?

MAIA MITCHELL: (as Callie) No, I don't have a toothbrush. How would I have gotten a toothbrush?

ULABY: Or the bad foster parents like the one she used to live with.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE FOSTERS")

MITCHELL: (as Callie) I mean, he used to hit me all the time. But, you know, whatever. Nobody seemed to care much about my side of the story.

ULABY: That reminded 17-year-old Robert Garris of living in a home where he and his little brother were treated differently from the family's biological kids.

ROBERT GARRIS: They would let the other kids eat before us. They would let the other kids hit on us and stuff.

ULABY: Now, the show does not get everything right. This real foster family gets a little nitpicky when it comes to the bureaucratic details.

GIBBON: Yeah, and the reality is if they adopted the other kids five years ago, they're not still a certified foster home.

SMITH: I mean they could've recertified though, 'cause Courtney and Tom...

GIBBON: But you have to do 30 hours every - I mean that's a lot of time.

GARRIS: Yeah, and they didn't do all that.

ULABY: OK, nobody wants to watch a show about the drama of getting recertified. But the foster care system is filled with incredible stories of conflict and messy emotions. It seems like a natural fit for television, so why haven't there been more movies and TV shows about it?

PETER PAIGE: I think it's hard for us as a culture to look at the ways that we're failing. We're failing some kids. There are kids without homes. How is that OK?

ULABY: That's Peter Paige, who created this show, "The Fosters," with Bradley Bredeweg. Paige starred in the Showtime series "Queer As Folk." And originally they were thinking about doing a series about gay dads. But there are plenty of gay dads on TV right now. And then, Bredeweg says, they accidentally learned about a program in L.A. for gay foster kids.

BRADLEY BREDEWEG: And I'll never forget the day you came back and told me about it. And you got emotional, which in turn I got emotional and then it sort of just - it forced us to move in this direction.

ULABY: They two sold the concept of a multicultural foster family with two moms to ABC Family. Jennifer Lopez, the singer, signed on as executive producer. The show runner is Joanna Johnson - logical; she's a white, lesbian mom with a Latino wife and two adopted biracial kids. She says she takes millions of details from her own life and puts them into "The Fosters."

JOANNA JOHNSON: There is a moment in one of the episodes where the moms have had, you know, a hard day with the children.

ULABY: They're in bed, too tired to talk. Then, one reaches out and they just hold hands.

JOHNSON: With their backs to each other, which is a moment that happens sometimes when you're so spent from all the energy you give to your children and work and in life that you just kind of need your space but you still want to be connected.

ULABY: It's the moments like that that sold the show to Susan Punnett. She runs a group that connects foster teenagers with potential adoptive families.

SUSAN PUNNETT: I watched it twice, actually. And I got totally looked.

ULABY: Punnett says she used to seeing kids without families vilified in popular culture or just ignored. She says this show, "The Fosters," gives a more nuanced view of older kids in-care.

PUNNETT: There's an assumption that they're difficult; that it's too late to mold them, to turn them into sort of who we think we want our children to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE FOSTERS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I would really like you to understand how this, tonight, could have ended very, very badly.

MITCHELL: (as Callie) So do you want to send me back to juvie?

ULABY: In fact, Punnett says older kids can be especially loving because they don't take love for granted. Often she says that they're desperately hungry for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE FOSTERS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You're not disposable, Callie. You're not worthless.

ULABY: Seventeen-year-old Robert Garris says it was not something he expected when he moved in with his current foster parents, Angela and Meg.

GARRIS: Having so much people care for you, it's like I never had all that. Like, so it sometimes weird and it's so overwhelming. But I know it's also good.

ULABY: This family got a little teary while watching the ABC Family show, "The Fosters." Eighteen-year-old Jamie Smith says that's because it illustrated three things she does not see enough of on television.

SMITH: That it is OK to be in foster care. And that it is OK to be foster parents. And that it is OK to show your emotions.

ULABY: Smith would also like "The Fosters'" producers to know if they ever need real foster kids for special guest appearances, just call her and her friend Robert Garris. They're available.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

SIEGEL: As we mentioned, that story is part of a series this month exploring all kinds of media for all kinds of young people; teenagers and mobile apps, classic books and building toys for kids, and music for the multilingual.

JOSE-LUIS OROZCO: (Singing in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language)

OROZCO: (Singing in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language)

OROZCO: (Singing in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language)

OROZCO: (Singing in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: That's Jose-Luis Orozco who has been performing for kids in Spanish and English for decades. We'll hear for more from him on MORNING EDITION.

OROZCO: (Singing) Very well, I thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Very well, I thank you.

(Singing) How about you?

(Singing) How about you?

(Singing) Today is Sunday.

(Singing) Today is Sunday.

(Singing) How are you?

(Singing) How are you?

(Singing) Very well, I thank you.

(Singing) Very well, I thank you.

CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.