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Documentary Examines What Happens When Foster Children “Age Out”

Former foster child Micah, 19, appears in a scene from "From Place to Place." Inset: Producer Matt Anderson.

Montana social worker Matt Anderson is on a mission to educate the public about the pitfalls of American foster care, especially older children about to age out of the system .

Many of these young people do not have family or public support. They are at higher risk of going to jail, suffering from depression, getting pregnant, becoming homeless or other problems.

Anderson is working to complete the documentary “From Place to Place” that follows teenagers who have turned 18 and left foster care. SocialWorkersSpeak.org sat down with Anderson, who is a member of the National Association of Social Workers, to talk about why he is so passionate about this issue. Here’s the interview:

Q: What made you get involved in social work? Where did you attend school and where do you work now?

A: I came into social work because I always imagined being a therapist but felt as though psychology or other tracks were too narrow in their approach and professional opportunities. Before I went back to graduate school I was a program director and doing some community organizing work with youth, so I was drawn to social work because I believed it would better suit my interests and better prepare me for a diverse career. I received my masters in social work from the University of Montana in 2008. Their program uses an integrated practice approach that allowed me to explore my clinical interests alongside my community organizing interests, which I think ultimately led me to documentary film. Right now I am the co-owner of Porch Productions with Paige Williams. I am also employed part-t ime by Partnership Health Center in Missoula where I work as a therapist with individuals’ involved with the Department of Corrections. I am about a year away from (becoming a licensed clinical social worker).

Q: How did your filmmaking hobby develop?

A: I would be hard pressed to say that I am a filmmaker. My role is actually more of a producer. My partner Paige is the trained filmmaker, but you could say that it takes both of us to do what we do. As I envisioned becoming a therapist, I also saw myself balancing being a therapist with something that was creative, entrepreneurial, and in concert with my values. When I started working with Paige and Porch Productions I realized that filmmaking was that something. I think the connection between film and therapy for me is found in my interest and curiosity in people’s stories and my belief that our stories can be powerful forces for change. Furthermore, I have always felt drawn to the untold, forgotten, or misrepresented stories. A long time ago I heard Russell Simmons say, “Hip-Hop gives voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless.” I feel like documentary filmmaking can do the same thing.

Q: How did you become interested in foster children? Was it through meeting Codie, the foster child  in your documentary who had been through 17 homes in seven years?

A: My interest in foster children was in part random and unexpected, but was also just the next thing that was supposed to happen. I had always been working with teenagers and when I was in graduate school I had a colleague who was working with kids aging out of foster care. I was looking for a paid practicum during my final semester so she set up an interview with her supervisor and I was hired to run a transitional living program. Codie was one of the first kids I worked with. I stuck with this work because I developed a relationship with these kids. But I also became increasingly aware of some of the problems within our system that cares for our most vulnerable children, particularly the older teenagers in care. One of the things that I realized is that our requirement to focus on permanency of placement can distract us from focusing on permanency of relationships. The teenagers who I worked with all had been in care for at least six years and their average number placements were about 15. Consequently, they had an endless trail of disrupted relationships and very little contact with their biological families. Since aging out, many of these kids have gone on a journey to find their families. Unfortunately, the trail of disrupted relationships has continued. Human beings have an undeniable need to be connected and our most natural connection systems are our families. But when kids enter the system they often become very disconnected, which I believe is at the root of their behavioral outbursts, emotional instability, academic struggles, etc. Until we can effectively address their trauma and their need for connection I am not sure that our kids in long-term foster care will ever be okay. This is one aspect of our foster care system that has captured my interest and has kept me committed even though my career has moved in a different direction.

Q: Your film follows three girls and three boys who were in foster care. How did you build such a trusting relationship with them?

A: Well, I worked with Codie, Raif, Micah, and Ralyn before they aged out so there was already the foundation of a trusting relationship. Mandy and I met through her brother Micah and Kirstin and I met through our jobs. I think it is in my and Paige’s nature to be compassionate and respectful and to put people at ease. I think this helped them trust that we would do their stories justice and portray them on film with fairness and sensitivity. But more importantly the trust came from our willingness as filmmakers to truly listen and validate their experiences. The first theme that emerged in their interviews is that they never felt like they had a voice in the system, which I can imagine must be a very scary and powerless feeling. Furthermore, they knew we were going to act on their stories and they saw that their voice would be heard by people who were in a position to make the system better for the next generation of kids in care. So I think the trust came from within them, they could trust their experiences and trust that we would make their voices heard.

Q: What are some of the problems children face as when they age out of foster care?

A: The problems that these kids face when they age out are many and the weight of the challenge can often be crushing. In the words of Raif, “it’s raw and it’s cold and it’s harsh and it will hit you hard.” Their struggles can be described as homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, lack of education and job skills, depression, drug abuse, unplanned pregnancy, and the list goes on. I think the problem can also be understood in terms of trauma and disrupted relationships. Not only do the individuals experience problems, they also put a disproportionate strain on our mental health system, criminal justice system, welfare system, etc. We have seen all of these things but we have also come to know six people who have good hearts and a ton of potential but have been profoundly hurt by the experience of growing up going from place to place. In the words of a colleague, “we move them from a situation of risk to one of danger when we place them in these temporary systems that’s just made worse when temporary becomes forever.” So our focus should not necessarily be put on extending foster care services to age 21 or 25 or creating better transitional programs. I believe our focus should be on improving our ability to respond to families’ needs the first time a report is made so that we can keep that family together. And for those kids who do come in to care, we should improve our ability to effectively treat their trauma and keep them connected to permanent, caring adult relationships.

Q:  You are looking for funding to complete your film. How is that going?

A: It is going well right now, but we definitely need additional financial support to produce the highest quality and most effective film possible. We have been successful in raising enough money to get us through the majority of production and produce an extended trailer, which can be viewed at FromPlacetoPlaceMovie.com. However, we are still looking for funds to finish filming and editing, and ultimately to create a highly produced film. The film’s website has a list of sponsorship opportunities for businesses and individuals who are interested in supporting the film. Porch Productions is enrolled in a Fiscal Sponsorship Program with the International Documentary Association so all contributions are tax deductible. We are also working on partnerships with national child welfare and/or foster care organizations that share a similar vision and would like to attach their name to our film. We believe that we have unprecedented access to incredibly important, yet all too invisible stories. These stories are relevant on a national level and speak to the urgent need for reform within in our foster care system. This film is very timely and the issues being addressed seem to have hit a nerve with people all around the country. The trailer has already played at conferences in Montana, California, and Virginia and has been shown during training sessions in many other states. There are also organizations who are linking the film’s website to their own so that more people can view the extended trailer. So far we have found a strong audience within the child welfare profession. We feel that additional funding will allow us to produce a high quality and powerful film that will reach an even larger audience within the general public and increase it’s impact. If anyone has questions or would like to talk about how they can support this important film please do not hesitate to contact us: Porch Productions, 406-544-0201, or matt@porchproductions.net.

To learn more about how social workers such as Matt Anderson help foster children, visit the National Association of Social Workers “Help Starts Here” Adoptions and Foster Care Web page by clicking here.

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8 Comments

  1. Keep up the good work. I am so proud of you. Matt’s Dad

  2. Speak out Micah!! Thank you Matt Anderson for putting this issue out and open!

  3. Its a great move to those folks out there. keep it up!

  4. Isn’t foster care a system that was developed by social workers?

  5. I am so grateful I ran across this website because aging out of foster care became my concern when thinking about what to write about in my writing class, My aim was to be and still is to be a social worker and educating myself as put my foot in the door.

  6. I was abused prior to and while in foster care.

Trackbacks

  1. Hollywood Writer, Producer Endorses Foster Care Documentary | Social Workers Speak
  2. Outlook for Aged-Out Foster Children Bleak | Social Workers Speak

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