Documentary Explores Emancipating From Foster Care System
The new documentary Unadopted explores what happens to teenagers in foster care as they approach the point of "aging out" of the system. NPR's Noel King talks to Noel Anaya about his film.
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NOEL KING, HOST:
At some point, older kids in foster care become unadoptable. There are three factors at play - how the foster care system sees the child, how potential parents see the child and what the child wants. In a new documentary called "Unadopted," Noel Anaya interviews kids who are in this position. It's a position that he was in not that long ago. In one scene, Anaya asks his lawyer when his caseworker changed his status to long-term foster care.
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NOEL ANAYA: Long-term foster care is what the system calls it when they stop trying to get you adopted. Instead, the plan is that you'll age out of the system.
UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: This looks like 2007 is when it moved over from a plan of adoption. I think you might have been 11. Yeah, you were 11 at that point.
ANAYA: OK - which means I was in sixth grade.
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KING: Anaya says one reason older foster kids don't get adopted is that they come with some baggage, real or perceived.
ANAYA: It's no surprise that every teen comes with, you know, their teen angst and all of the joys of being a teen. But like, also, I think most families don't want - like, this kid is forever going to want to know about his biological family or her biological family. You know? And I think it could be a little bit intimidating, or it could seem as if that family is competing. I think most people don't want to find out, or they don't possibly want to get hurt.
KING: In the documentary, we also meet a teenage girl named Sequoia (ph) who is incredibly honest about how badly she wants to be adopted. And at one point, she says something so striking...
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SEQUOIA: Trying to be a part of their family, the first few months, was really hard 'cause I had to figure out how they worked, how they spoke, what their moods were, how to talk to them.
KING: This is a teenage girl who you would expect to be the one who has moods herself that adults have to get used to. And instead, she's saying, I need to get used to their moods. The idea that teenagers view adoptive parents as people they have to impress - there is also something really telling and really sad about that, too.
ANAYA: I think for Sequoia, like so many other foster youth, they're at emotional crossroads. And they're confronted with what may be the most important decision of their lives, whether to reunify with their biological family, if possible - which in her case is not - or opt into extended care or the third choice, to pursue a forever family.
KING: And she is very keen on getting a forever family. She at one point says she does not even know if her mother is alive. And if she is, Sequoia says, well, good for her. If she's not, I wouldn't be surprised.
How frequent is it for kids in the foster care system to be so alienated from their parents that their attitude is - I don't know if this person is alive or dead; I don't want them to be dead, but if they are, eh, OK?
ANAYA: The foster care system definitely does desensitize people. You know, in another NPR story I did, I mentioned there's, like, little to no emotion. Kids often mirror their role models. And if you have role models, aka the social workers, the judges, lawyers, et cetera, being so gray with them, then, you know, you're going to get the same results.
KING: You mention this NPR story that you did for All Things Considered a few years ago - an award-winning story in which you tape part of your own courtroom hearing. And the thing that stood out to me, maybe because my name is Noel, is that the judge who had dealt with your case for a while called you Nole (ph). And you corrected her and said, actually, it's Noel (ph). And then you note the frustration of my fate is in this judge's hands, and she doesn't even know how to pronounce my name or has forgotten how to pronounce my name.
ANAYA: Yeah. I thought that was so shocking because she's been on my case for so long, you know. And she has my brother on her caseload, as well, so my name, you know, would bleed into his case file. So for something so simple as a name is really bad. And Ms. Schwarz, if you're listening, I think we should have a sit-down talk and reflect from that because I think simple things like that can get corrected, and they should be.
KING: There seems to be a push to, instead of taking children away from their parents and putting them in foster care, to leave them with their parents if they're not in immediate danger and help the parents improve. You, at the end of the documentary, make clear that you are in touch with your biological family and seem happy about that. You also have nothing ill or bad to say about the foster family with whom you spent your older years, your older teenage years. Do you wish that you had been left with your biological family and that they had gotten support, or do you think it was the right move to take you out of their care and put you into foster care?
ANAYA: I shouldn't be as well off as I am. And I don't know if that's the survivor's guilt talking, but I've had to endure so much. And I don't know - you know, foster care is supposed to be temporary, and it wasn't temporary. I was bouncing home to home. I was in multiple families, and it did take an emotional toll. I'm not going to say that it didn't. I just think I had the willpower to, you know, push through.
And I still don't know what the answer would be, but I would say - you know, I don't want to say this because I don't want to let the system win - think they won, you know. But I would rather not have gotten adopted or reunified with my biological family because I did that on my own terms. I reunified with my bio family. I accepted my foster family as my chosen family. But I did that, not the system. So I don't want to say one way or the other and think the system won because they didn't. They have a bigger job to do.
KING: Noel Anaya - he's the co-producer of the new documentary "Unadopted," which is now on the KQED Arts YouTube channel. It's a terrific film. And Noel, thank you so much for taking the time to join us. We really appreciate it.
ANAYA: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It was an honor.
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