On January 24, 2011, I took the No. 6 subway train uptown to the Lehman Village public-housing complex in East Harlem, New York. I went to observe a weekly parent support group meeting at the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP). I had spent the six months prior meeting with and interviewing foster parents, foster care agencies and social workers, but throughout my research I found that the voice of one group remained elusive: the birth parents.
Inside the small, crowded room I met parents representing every borough and ethnicity of New York City. I met a mother from Guatemala who needed housing for herself and her kids so they could escape her abusive boyfriend. A single mother who suffered from PTSD after two tours in Iraq told her about a family shelter in Queens with a Spanish-speaking social worker on-site. Thanks to CWOP, the veteran had succeeded in bringing her own daughter back home; she was attending this meeting to offer support to other parents going through the system.
Parents flocked to CWOP because they felt safe there: safe to tell their stories without judgment, and safe to ask questions about a system in which they felt powerless. I was surprised and touched by these parents' stories and their determination to turn their lives around so that they could get their kids home and out of foster care. But even after years of compliance and changes, many of these parents felt trapped. They were fighting the biggest battle of their lives, yet they were fighting without the proper tools and information.
A few weeks later, I met Hasna "Hannah" Siddique. The minute Hannah walked into the meeting, her six-month pregnant belly, glowing skin and radiant smile reminded everyone of the excitement a mother carries when she is expecting a new baby. All eyes turned to her. But Hannah revealed that she was frustrated by the lack of movement on her two-year-old case. Her ex-boyfriend's verbal and physical abuse had brought her and the two kids she had with him, A.J. and Nia, into the system and separated them. When the other parents told her that her newborn was also at risk of entering the system, Hannah's smile disintegrated into tears. Her helplessness was palpable. Hannah's story illustrated the vexations of the birth parent, a side of adoption and child welfare that was rarely depicted in the mainstream media. If I could document her attempt to keep her newborn and get her two kids back, maybe I could help to address that lack of visibility.
Soon after, I met Hannah's husband, Philly, and I was immediately taken by both of them. This young, mixed-race couple were deeply in love and excited about their future together, yet real-world facts and demands constantly challenged their relationship. One minute, I'd see them dancing with the kids while making dinner; the next minute I'd find them hunched over Philly's paycheck, adding up how many more hours he needed to work in order for them to qualify for low-income housing.
It was clear that Philly loved Hannah and her kids, but it was also evident that the case scared him. His seven-day work week gave him a valid excuse to evade Hannah's court dates and conferences. He knew she felt helpless at those appointments, but he felt powerless to give her the necessary support.
Hannah desperately wanted to move her life forward, but the child welfare case kept reminding her of all her past mistakes. The more time I spent with Hannah, the more I could see how a childhood spent living in shelters and suffering abuse had forced her to grow up too fast. Basically, she never had a chance to enjoy her own childhood, and she so badly wanted to give her kids the opportunity to enjoy theirs.
I was able to develop relationships with Hannah's Administration for Children's Services caseworker, her lawyer and her ex-boyfriend. However, no matter how hard I tried to persuade them, they were not willing to participate in this project. I knew that no matter how observational and experiential this story was, if it did not include other observations of the system it would feel one-sided. That's when I decided to seek out other jurisdictions to see if I could document not just another parent's case, but also the court hearings that ultimately decided that case. Through CWOP, I discovered that Seattle's child welfare system used a different parent advocate-training model.
I flew out to Seattle, where I observed Judge Patricia Clark's courtroom. That's where I first met Patrick, a single father whose past included drugs, incarceration and working for the mafia. This colorful background, combined with his recovery and determination to get his three-year-old daughter, Natalya, home and out of foster care, made him stand out to me, as well as to many Family Treatment Court (FTC) workers. In court, it was clear that Patrick was nervous, but he was not entirely uncomfortable. He chatted and, at times, flirted with the judge. I had never heard so much laughter in a courtroom before. Judge Clark made him feel at ease, as if she was rooting for him to get things straight so he could "one day be out there with his daughter."
Patrick liked and hated the camera. He liked having it around when he thought about all the good things it could do to help other families in similar situations, but when it caught him trying to manage his packed schedule of work, treatment, court and daddy responsibilities, it made him feel embarrassed that he wasn't doing "good" enough. He forgot about the camera only when he was with Natalya. He adored his daughter. Together, they were a good team. He — and Natalya's foster parents — knew that his survival rested on her existence.
At times Patrick's FTC team loved him, and other times they felt like he just didn't "get it." No matter what mistakes he made, though, the team never let him go. They held meetings to discuss the self-confidence issues that prevented him from moving forward. It was incredible to see the level of treatment the court provided Patrick and his daughter, and I strongly believe that this was ultimately responsible for his receiving the second chance he so badly wanted.
I hope Tough Love gives audiences a glimpse of the lives inside the child welfare system, the lives of the families and workers who spend countless days navigating this complex bureaucracy. Because at the end of the day, it is a system made of people. People who are faced with complex issues like housing, welfare, domestic violence and substance abuse. People who have to overcome unimaginable obstacles to have families again. Too often, adoption is seen as the only option for children in foster care. Through Hannah, Philly and Patrick's stories, I hope to show that these children have parents who love them and are willing to do whatever it takes to get them home.
— Stephanie Wang-Breal, Director/Producer