Many American youth have experiences in foster care, with three in every 1,000 young people having some experience with the system. For everyone else, perceptions about foster care come mainly through media, including Hollywood movies. Many of us can picture young Harry Potter, forced to live under the stairs by his cruel foster parents. While these portrayals might give some glimpse into the foster care system, they may actually be painting a more pessimistic picture than the reality.

The top half of the movie poster for

A recent study by the Center for Scholars and Storytellers asked youth aged 18 to 26, some of whom had experience in the foster care system, to share what they thought about a recent movie that tells the largely positive story of a foster family: Instant Family. The movie follows a couple who take three siblings into their care through the foster system, eventually adopting them. The movie was written and directed by Sean Anders as a way to tell the story of his own journey fostering and adopting three children. Researchers asked study participants whether they thought the portrayals of foster youth in the movie were accurate.

The results? Youth with some foster care experience were 3.4 times more likely to see the film’s hopeful portrayal as being accurate, compared to youth with none.

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This difference showed up in some of the participants’ comments, as one 26 year old with no foster care experience shared the belief that, “This clip makes foster care look a lot better than reality. It is a hopeful view of foster youth (including reunification), but maybe not the most accurate.”

Participants with experiences in foster care, on the other hand, related to the complexity of feelings portrayed, such as betrayal and disappointment, and in the end seemed to appreciate the more multifaceted nature of the story, as opposed to many others that villainize either the foster parents or the children. “I have been in this situation before and the way the actress portrayed the foster youth’s betrayal felt so similar and real,” said one participant.

These perceptions matter, because researchers have linked portrayals in Hollywood to real-world effects ranging from tourist behavior to teacher perceptions. If entertainment media predominantly portray the foster care system as broken or damaging, those messages can carry over to how people perceive and interact with those involved in the system.

According to the report, there are some important ways that storytellers can ensure they are bridging the gap between perceptions and reality when it comes to the foster care system, and it starts with the basic premise that those with lived experiences should be a part of the storytelling. Who better to tell a real story of what it’s like to be in the foster care system than someone who has been in it?

The report recommends that storytellers diversify who is represented in these stories, to capture the wide range of experiences that exist within the foster care system. Even the more positive portrayals of these stories can often lean into the white-savior narrative, as was evident in the 2009 movie The Blind Side. And given the recent lawsuits filed against his foster parents by the NFL player whom the film is based on, Michael Oher, these depictions can often gloss over a more complex story than what we saw on screen. 

Given the widespread availability and interest in these stories depicted on TV or in movies, the researchers encourage storytellers to use these platforms to raise awareness with the goal of creating a more informed and empathic public. This might also require that these stories challenge the common stereotypes of overly inspiring or utterly hopeless foster youth, and instead portray those involved in the foster care system as who they are—complex people with rich stories and backgrounds, just like the rest of us.

Perhaps then, as the researchers suggest, “Storytellers can play a crucial role in reshaping public perceptions of the foster care system and contributing to a more accurate and compassionate understanding of this important social issue.”

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