The superhero film transforming how we see foster care


In the movie, Billy Batson, the soon-to-be superhero, is also a foster kid. His latest placement is a group home that his roommate/sidekick Freddy Freeman warns him “gets pretty ‘Game of Thrones’ ” — before admitting that it’s not really bad. In fact, the place looks warm and welcoming, if a bit worn around the edges — like the house in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” You almost expect the finial to come off the staircase post in Billy’s hand.

Say “foster care” to most people and they think of two tropes: the saint or the villain. When we became foster parents, others blessed my husband and I so many times for our heroic generosity, we started to wonder how we were getting mixed up with Mother Teresa. Conversely, the typical image in literature and entertainment is the parent with no intention of parenting — negligent at best, abusive at worst, and often depicted as “in it for the money.” The unloving woman who housed Anne Shirley and made her care for multiple sets of twins before she wound up at Green Gables; the people who locked Temperance Brennan (played by Emily Deschanel on “Bones”) in a chest for breaking a dish — these are examples of the long-standing mainstays.

Despite the occasional glimmer of light in recent offerings such as “The Fosters” and last year’s “Instant Family,” I’ve come to expect this equally unfair duality in most representations of foster families. Therefore, I was unprepared for the portrayal of fostering in “Shazam!”

Watching the movie, I realized I was holding my breath, waiting to see whether this would be the sinner or saint version of foster parenting. Much to my relief, it was neither. Instead, the struggles of fostering were not only portrayed accurately, but they were also depicted with compassion.

“Shazam!” was the closest version of fostering I’ve seen to the reality my family experienced. The conflicting loyalties between a child’s old life and new life, the desire to connect and separate simultaneously, the confusion of not knowing how this arrangement changes your identity — it was all there, just as we lived it.

It would have helped me tremendously to see this before we became a foster family. I grew up with my sister, but before becoming a foster parent, I didn’t think about the difference between being someone’s sibling and being their mother. I also didn’t consider that everyone has a unique story. Why would this child be an exception? But I didn’t grasp that this child, in joining our family life, would have a past and a perspective that might not bear any resemblance to ours, or even to my sister’s.

As the movie’s audience, we see the rituals and routines of the house through Billy’s cynical eyes, such as the pre-dinner “hands in,” but we also see the hopefulness and uncertainty of his now-foster sister who’s about to head to college (and age out of the system), the disengagement and self-protection of the foster brother who’s there in body only, and the open-armed plea for affection of the younger foster sister, who wants the security of togetherness. Our own family experienced these conflicting emotions as well.

Both Victor and Rosa, the film’s foster parents, are veterans of the system themselves. Now managing a group home of six kids, Victor at one point reminds Rosa that connection is difficult and far from certain, that they both ran away when they were in care and that it’s to be expected.

He reminds her that, in the past, she reacted to a kid running away by saying, “It’s not a home till you call it home, it’s something you choose.” He tells her, “All we can do is give them a place full of love. Whether they choose to call it home, that’s up to them.” I heard that, and I thought, “Of course.” Sometimes, as with my sister, there is a choice to call it home and family. Sometimes, it doesn’t turn out that way — but that doesn’t mean the place was any less necessary.

Our own foster situation was, like many, complicated: the child’s history, biological family, former residence — all of it came into play in ways we’d never considered. The placement lasted almost two years, and when it ended, our biological kids asked if we would please wait before doing it again. My husband and I respected that — and the toll it took to take someone in and say goodbye. We expect that, at some point, we will foster again, probably when one of our students needs a safe place to stay.

Foster parents are not celestial, but they’re also not generally satanic. The families we encountered in our training, in the organization-sponsored meet-and-greets, and in random community interactions were mostly doing their best to provide a safe and loving home. Are there bad apples? Sadly, yes. But using that image to define and exemplify perpetuates a fearful and toxic image of what it means to foster.

It’s important to move past the mistaken beliefs that prevent greater involvement. People think they can’t foster because they’re not old enough or they’re too old, or because they don’t have a college degree, or because they don’t own a house, or because they’ve never had biological kids. The truth is, most states are desperate for people who just want to share a positive, nurturing home with kids who direly need one.

As of 2017, there were more than 440,000 children in the American foster care system. Are they all adorable moppets straight out of a Broadway musical? No. But they’re not broken, violent miscreants either, no matter what horror movies might lead you to believe. Just as foster parents are not generally heaven-sent or evil incarnate, foster kids are also humanly imperfect. Yes, real life is always going to be more complicated than a movie. But “Shazam!” is a great reminder that you don’t have to be a superhero to be a foster parent.

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