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Changing the Narrative of Foster Care

A week ago, I participated in a media panel after attending the screening of Night Comes On directed by Jordana Spiro (Netflix’s Ozark) and co-written by Jordana Spiro and Angelica Nwandu (Founder of The Shade Room). Although the film explored emotional messages of loss, abuse, and retribution, I am, instead, drawn to the empowering themes of survival, strength, and sisterhood in the story of two African American youth in foster care who are struggling through life without a safety net. Heavy on my mind is the question of why some audience members might perceive the main characters as criminals and victims while others perceive them as heroes and survivors. Is it safe for youth in care to speak their truth if society has a preconceived notion of who they are and what they will become?

The panel, moderated by CNN anchor, Michaela Pereira, discussed how the media portrays youth in foster care and consisted of myself, Jordana Spiro, and Zaid Gayle (Executive Director of Peace4Kids). The four of us faced an audience who were left speechless by the powerful film. Michaela expertly broke the silence by sharing her personal story of adoption, coping with the labels that are placed upon her, and the effort she puts forth to ensure her reporting is sensitive to the experiences of vulnerable populations. My contribution to the panel discussion included a sneak peek into the preliminary results of a ground-breaking research study, Changing the Narrative.

This study surveyed 2,500 Los Angeles County residents about their perceptions of foster youth, a topic that has yet to be studied. LA County has more youth in foster care than any other county in the United States. There are approximately 30,000 youth with connections to the foster care system in LA (county population = 10 million). Comparatively, there are approximately 5,000 youth in foster care in the entire country of New Zealand (population = 5 million) and 25,000 foster youth in New York state (population = 20 million). The answer to our research question could clearly be found in Los Angeles County.

This research question (like most of my foster care research) was initiated by the youth. A leadership group of Peace4Kids teens shared how they feel the burden of a negative perception held by the general public that may be facilitated by characters and story lines in the media. They wondered if this perception was creating unnecessary obstacles in their lives when they disclose their connection to the foster care system; triggering a preconceived notion others hold about their outcomes. Zaid brought the question to me and we developed a comprehensive survey.

It was to no one’s surprise when the survey confirmed that the majority of the general public reports a negative portrayal of youth in foster care in the media. The most interesting results are emerging as we dig deeper to understand which demographic groups are more likely to see positive perceptions in the media while other groups are more likely to see negative perceptions. It raises complicated questions. Are these various demographic groups viewing different media or do they have different perceptions of the same characters and story lines? If we change the narrative in the media, will that change the perception of the general public? Our intention is to seek predictors of positive perceptions so that we can do the hard work necessary to create a a society in which youth in care speak their truth and find a supportive safety net as they navigate their lives.

Stay tuned for more results from the Changing the Narrative research project and see Night Comes On at a theater near you to better understand how the experience of early trauma and foster care impacts every aspect of an individual's life.

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