Foster is a documentary that unravels, and fixes stigmas mentioned about the foster care system. Academy Award winners Deborah Oppenheimer and Jonathan Mark Harrison teamed up once again as the filmmakers for the film. Jessica Chandler is one of the actors featured in the film and she discusses her past struggles and her thoughts about the future of the foster care system. Oppenheimer and Harrison talk with ATM about the making of Foster.

ATM: How is your morning so far?

DO: It started very early. We are coming from Los Angeles, so we are all on West Coast time. We just did an ABC Good Morning program and now we are here with you. We are very happy to be here.

ATM: This film is exceptionally great. I really think it will go to Oscars 2019. I really think so.

JC: (Laughs). I told you!

JH: We hope so. (Laughs)

DO: We are all rooting for this. This is very superstitious.

ATM: I have seen a lot of films that handled and dealt with very dicey stories, but your film has reached a limit to me that no film has. I truly mean this. Like I said your film will go to the Academy Awards. Jessica your story really stuck.

JC: Thank you. (Smiles).

ATM: {Jonathan and Deborah When did you all get that tiny spec of a thought to direct and produce this documentary?

DO: We have thought to do this film for a good decade and even more. We did not start on it until four years ago. We have been working very dedicated on it for four challenging years. (Laughs).

I have one of these youths in my life. I met him when he was six while volunteering for a public school. I found out he was a foster youth living in an orphanage. He had been removed from his parents. I went home sobbing. I had never encountered a foster youth from a system before. It has been 24 years. He is 30 now. I was very aware that most people outside of the system never encountered the subject matter. I just thought more people should know about it.

JH: I have always been interested in a lot of the film I have done about the resilience of how children deal with the traumatic situations created by adults. This is a perfect example of how traumatic situations is not the fault of the children. Children do not go to foster care because they want to, they go because the parents have problems with neglect and child abuse. I wanted to know how children coped with these very traumatic situations. For me, that was the hook to this film. We both had different interests and did some exploration. There were a lot of stereotypes about the system. Social workers are seen as child stealers. There are stereotypes about the kids.

DO: There are stereotypes about the foster parents and biological parents. Everybody in the film is subject to judgment and stereotypes out in the world. We wanted to invite people in to get to know the people.

ATM: How did you all come across Jessica?

JC: Good question.

DO: Lucky us. (Laughs).

All: (Laughs).

DO: We were referred to her by the Alliance of Children’s Rights. They talked glowingly about Jessica. We were very taken with her story because she represents such a full spectrum of foster care, neglect, and abuse. She was a young girl who went into the probation system. She was a pregnant teen and she wanted to blow the system up. Jessica went on to get a master’s in social work and also work in the system.

ATM: {Jessica} What made you decide to share your story?

JH: Yes, why did you decide to do this? (Laughs)

ATM: You could have denied this opportunity or offer.

JC: I have been offered for films in the past. I’ve built a mistrust with people. The woman that referred me to them from Alliance is like a mother to me. My guard was down when I met them already. The things that they wanted the film to do really spoke to who I have become now. The woman I am now makes me feel the overwhelming need to give back and to contribute. I have been so blessed and lucky to come into contact with people who spoke life into me and who believed in me when I did not believe in myself that I was going to make it.

I had all the odds against me. So, investing in me was like a bad idea. Jonathan and Deborah wanted to normalize the people. The parents are not just demons coming to our system. The social workers do not kidnap babies in the middle of the night to sale them. The foster parents come because they really care, it is not just for the money.

ATM: You just touched on a really good stigma for foster parents. A lot of people do think they are just taking these children in for payment. This gives it bad viewpoint on the parents who want to care. One of the parents in the film said, “[I am not trying to replace their mother. I am here to fill the void until they get the help that they did.]” You grew up in the system. What did you envision for the future of foster system?

JC: I want it to get to the point that coming to foster care is easy like filling out a college application. They should not be at the bottom of the food chain. Teachers, foster parents, and social workers should have amazing benefits, payments, and time to care for their own children.

JH: The system today reacts to people in crisis. We need to move toward more to a public health approach before they disintegrate. Something that was not put in the film was that you are in the system, but your caseload disappears.

ATM: As you first walked into the juvenile detention center or the probation center, how did you foreshadow your life?

JC: Umm. Okay, I’ll tell the truth. From the age of 8, when my parent’s divorce, I started to have a negative connotation of who I was. I thought of myself as living in society as one of the less fortunate and less lucky than other kids. At 12 years old, I was very suicidal. I felt everyone had a purpose. My father was a minister. My father had shown us once we were little that these are the people who do not go to school, do not do what they are supposed to do, or do not listen to their parent. He showed us that they end up on Skidder Road. I assumed my trajectory was that I was going to be the person people pointed at or take their kids to. They would say if you do not want to be her then you need not do this and this. I assumed this was my fate and my role.

ATM: How did you grow into motherhood through all these setbacks in your life?

JC: (Silence). Hmm. I never wanted to be a mom. Never thought I would be a good mom. I felt at a very young age that I was the evil, hateful, and a bad person. I did not wish this on anybody. This is already getting overwhelming (eyes getting watery).

Wow, we are doing a real interview. Even if I did lose them, which it was a short possibility, then I would still do my best. I still was going to try everything so that I can live with myself afterward even he was taken from me. So, I said yes to every resourceful help they sent me. I wanted a mentor. They got me that.

I wanted to maybe try community college. I had already tried to test. I tested into 3rd-grade math and 8th grade English (eyes becoming waterier). I just knew I was not smart enough for college. I was like whatever you say I’ll do it. I wanted them to have more than what I had. Overtime, after my first born, I started falling in love with my second son Noah. Seeing the other people fall in love with him, made me think “maybe I want to embrace this.” Maybe I was a worthy person of him. Also, being celebrated as a mother. People would say, “You are doing such a good job with your breastfeeding” and “Oh you look so cute.” This gave me confirmation that when he was born that I was deserving of being a mom. Even now he is like, “get out my face mom.” People are like, “This is normal Jessica.” I said, “oh kay I am doing this. I am in the field.”

JH: There is a scene in the film we did not mention about you talking to parents and teens. You said to them that because of your experience you have more resilience.

JC: I share with them that you have more of a survival thrust than others. So, you are more likely to succeed when you do something because you have already experienced things people are afraid of. This is the disappoint and self-doubt. You are more likely to succeed from the resilience of just surviving whatever trauma.

ATM: {Oppenheimer and Harrison} Were there scenes in the film that caught more of your attention?

DO: There is a 13-year-old girl named Danisha that believes what Jessica just said. She felt that the devil was inside of her. Laney talking about disproportionality. Dasani performing his rap about a painful story that he cannot talk about to the therapist. Jessica working with the nurse that does not even know if the work they are doing is working.

JH: We followed these stories for a long period of time. One scene that caught our attention was when Dasani talked with his case manager and social worker about his case. He breaks into a sweat as they question him about his past. We did not know what had happened to him. In the film, you hear that he saw his father murder his mother at the age of 4. This scene demonstrates the power of trauma.

JC: You crying? You okay?

JH: Yes, I am. (chuckles).

ATM: This brings me to my next question. Did you cry at any time during the film?

JH: Jessica’s speech during the family partnership.

JC: You cried?

DO: I cried as Jessica talked about she needed someone else to believe in her. She did not see this in herself. This made me cry the first few times I saw this.

ATM: At the beginning of her speaking, Jessica starts off with a normal story. You think it is going to end perfectly. She says, “my parents were married.” I am saying to myself, “okay, this is going to be an average story.” It becomes a rollercoaster. I did not expect this. She kept going on.

DO: We did not include the whole speech. The whole movie could have been about Jessica.

ATM: Jessica, through the lonely nights you cried, felt worthless, and while on probation, what kept you going to get to this moment in your life today? Even when you said you ran to your neighbor’s house for three days to hide from your mother’s abusiveness toward you.

JC: I have this idea that everything happens for a reason. I made a promise to God that if he would save me I would be good. I wanted to see how things would turn out. I have three brothers and one sister that lived with my mother at the moment. My younger sister was still being exploited. Terrible things were happening to her as I was locked up. They call me the “pitbull” of the family because of my personality. I had to be there for my brothers and sisters. We did not have anyone. We did not have a mother, father, aunt, grandparents, or uncle that was active in our lives. I just wanted to protect them and keep them safe.

I have always had a sense of right and wrong. I just now got a memory. The first time I went into the juvenile hall they made me shower naked, squat, and cough. They were looking inside of me for something. I never understood what they were looking for. I thought it was demons. The feeling that I had after this was that this is why girls prostitute. It felt like they took everything from me. I have never been watched naked before and I could not cover. There were opened stall showers where other people can see my body parts.

I did not want people to see my body parts. I can see how you can leave juvenile hall to think people should see your body because they have power as if they are adults or authority figures. I felt a sense of injustice and wrong. I remember thinking that one day when I grow up I would make sure it would stop. I still think they do things that are degrading. I knew it was wrong because it felt bad.

Jonathan Mark Harrison and Deborah Oppenheimer create another wonderful documentary. With the main character, Jessica Chandler showed how one could transform from a destine perceived failure to a woman setting an example. The foster system is well on the rise for change. Foster premiered at the AFI Docs in Washington, DC and continues to reach a diverse audience throughout the U.S.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: