Imagine this: You turn 18, and the only family you know cuts you off completely. Imagine moving 17 times, and having 17 families, in seven years. Before he was a filmmaker, Matt Anderson worked as a counselor for kids who were about to age out of the foster care system, and he recalls working with a kid named Codie dealing with this very issue.
"He had 17 placements from the day he was removed from his mom and his siblings," Anderson says, "and he never went back."
The purpose of the foster care system is to place children who have been removed from parental custody with families that will care for them permanently, but many children drift from place to place, between foster homes and group facilities. The minute these children turn 18, government support stops.
"In some sense I was his last parent," says Anderson. "He turned 18, got an apartment, aged out, and then my services were done. The state's involvement was done. Everything was finished."
But before Codie aged out, says Anderson, "we were sitting in his apartment, and he said, 'My story is really important. People should know about my life and what happened to me in foster care. We should make a movie about my life.'"
Anderson knew next to nothing about film production at the time, but he kept thinking about Codie's movie. Finally, a classmate encouraged him to pitch the idea to Paige Williams, a graduate of the University of Montana's Media Arts master's program, who had started the Missoula-based film production company Porch Productions in 2006. Williams' first major project was the award-winning documentary Mississippi Queen, in which Williams, who is gay, explores her relationship with her parents, who run an ex-gay ministry. Since then, Williams has been dedicated to raising awareness and promoting social change through storytelling—and she quickly saw that Codie's story fit the bill.
"It was going to be a really short piece, just about Cody and his 17 placements, but the story was there and it just kept growing," says Anderson.
As a case manager and a fledgling filmmaker, Anderson was concerned with two issues. He noticed many of his kids felt invisible, and they were eager to share their experiences with anyone willing to listen. He also realized foster care kids become profoundly invisible once they age out.
"We don't see what happens to them when they leave," says Anderson, "but we have some research and some data that says it's really bad."
Codie's story became From Place to Place, a work-in-progress documentary that follows three young men and three young women for a year after they age out of the foster care system. Each subject has a different story to tell, and most are heartbreaking.
Raif, for instance, has been homeless since leaving foster care. When the film first introduces him, he is a fresh-faced 18-year-old, and he appears incredibly vulnerable. Raif is a singer, and he treats the filmmakers to regular updates of a song about his life on the streets.
- Raif is one of six former foster care kids featured in a new documentary project by Paige Williams and Matt Anderson. “In the beginning I wanted to take them all home with me, but they wouldn’t have stayed,” says Williams. “They’re so used to going from place to place.”
"Every time he sings it for us it gets sadder," says Williams.
In one of his last interviews, Raif looks years older. His eyes are hard and his face is riddled with third degree burns.
"I lit my face on fire on Monday," he tells Anderson, then pauses in thought. "I've mostly been hanging out with friends," he concludes brightly.
"The foster care system is very much crisis-driven," says Anderson. "These kids and their families are in crisis a lot. There's abuse, and there's neglect, and these kids are traumatized. Their behavior is affected."
Placements with families are often temporary, Anderson explains. Even the best-intentioned foster families often find they can't manage the situation. The result is that when many children in the system turn 18, they are left with no support system. Constantly moving, these children never experience a normal childhood. Because they don't have the formative experiences most of us take for granted, many graduates of the foster care system lack the basic skills to navigate the adult world.
"The saddest thing for me is that for these kids that we have great relationships with at this point, it's too late," says Williams. "It's pretty heartbreaking."
Both Williams and Anderson admit that traditional objectivity was impossible in this project. Anderson, who is a producer of the film as well as a recent co-owner of Porch Productions, follows cases he's also handling as a social worker. In addition, he conducts most of the on-screen interviews.
"In terms of how we see documentary, it depends on the project," explains Williams about her company's approach to filmmaking.
In this case, Anderson and Williams felt the only ethical approach was to become personally involved in the stories, and to make their involvement clear. That meant looking for solutions for each former foster child.
"It's in both of our natures to ask what we're going to do about this," says Anderson.
He also felt he couldn't let his kids down. They expected the film to make a difference. As issues emerged from the main interviews, the filmmakers sought out professionals who could provide perspective and suggest avenues for reform. So far, the crew has interviewed reformers, legislators, judges and advocates across the country. They hope to raise enough money at fundraisers this month and in the spring to complete their wish list of interviewees and complete the project.
Compiling so many hours of material is a Herculean task. Williams expects her first cut to run at about five hours. Then, editing decisions will become even more difficult because the stories are so personal. In the end, Williams and Anderson hope the film will serve as a call to action.
"Once you see the need, you can't ignore it," says Williams. "We are hoping this film will revolutionize the system."
A fundraiser for From Place to Place includes a rough cut screening of the documentary, as well as music from local MCs and DJs, on Tuesday, Nov. 24, at the Badlander. $7 from 9–11 PM and $3 after 11.