Back in 2013, the pool of American family dramas was diversified when The Fosters aired its pilot episode. With a premise of a lesbian couple (Stef and Lena) raising their unconventional family of fostered, adopted and biological teenagers, it looked to be a new frontier of representation for the fostering world. But how authentic is the portrayal of fostered teenagers, and how much is pure fiction?
The first season of The Fosters centres around the arrival of Callie and Jude, two fostered siblings, who join Stef and Lena’s family on a temporary basis. The show takes us through the turbulent and complicated road to their eventual adoption, where issues such as birth family, trauma and being separated are explored. Callie, 16, and Jude, 12, join Brandon, Stef’s biological son from a previous marriage, and Jesus & Mariana, twins adopted from foster care as children. Callie and Jude have been in care for six years, never in one place for longer than six months, and the experiences they have been through are well reflected in their character writing and relationships with the rest of the family. Older sister Callie, who arrives straight out of a short stay in Juvenile Detention, begins closed off and blunt, with no trust in the adults around her. When she skips her first day of her new school to go and find Jude, who remains in their previous abusive foster home, she tells no-one and tries to do it all on her own. Young people who have grown up in foster care often believe the only person they can depend on is themselves, due to receiving inconsistent care and, in many cases, neglect throughout their childhood. So, Callie’s reluctance to show warmth or gratitude towards Stef and Lena in the beginning actually rings very true. She even makes disparaging comments on their sexuality and the fact that Brandon is the ‘real son’; a way of pushing away and rejecting people before they can abandon her first.
After agreeing to also take in Jude for a few nights, Stef and Lena meet with the siblings’ social worker to discuss Callie and Jude’s situation. Despite their worries about Callie being potentially violent and difficult, the social worker gently explains that “they’re good kids, they’ve just had bad luck”, and that he’s desperate to find a permanent home for them. Stef and Lena come to the decision to foster them until they are matched with an adoptive home (or reunified with their birth dad) and are honest with them about this fact. Having to repeatedly leave foster homes they feel secure in is a very real struggle for kids, and so this depiction feels very honest and not an attempt to oversimplify the reality of foster care. Stef and Lena promise Callie and Jude that their home will be their last ‘stop’ before having a permanent family and that they will never let them get split up again, which brings both of the teens relief. The Fosters does a good job at depicting Callie and Jude’s close sibling relationship, where Callie takes on a parental role over Jude. It is common for oldest siblings in the care system to become like a parent to their more vulnerable younger siblings, as they feel they are their only constant caregiver and that they cannot trust others to keep them safe. Callie is very protective of Jude and even tells Stef that they can send her back to Juvenile Detention as long as she promises Jude will be somewhere safe. Stef tells her “you’re not disposable Callie, you’re not worthless”, which she appears to struggle to hear, understandably.
As Callie and Jude settle into their new foster family, we come to understand the ways in which their previous trauma has affected their ability to form attachments. Jude is very quiet, passive and timid, asking his foster mums for chores in order to feel some security and not really believing he deserves anything more than he has. He has always had his sister fight on his behalf and so goes on a journey learning that some family environments can allow him to flourish and stick up for himself. When he has his first argument with foster brother Jesus about locking him out of their shared room, Stef and Lena secretly celebrate the fact that he feels comfortable and secure enough to say “my room” and yell at Jesus “like a real brother!”. As for Callie, she forms fast romantic attachments with teenage boys again and again, all the while making it very difficult for Stef and Lena to form emotional attachments with her. This is an authentic portrayal of a young teenager attempting to fill the void left by unpredictable parental love with validation from various boyfriends that she matters. Later on in the series, after Stef and Lena decide they want to adopt the teens, Callie runs away and explains to Stef in tears that “I just thought if I left on my own it wouldn’t hurt as much as if you told me to go”, to which Stef reassures her that “’nothing you can do is gonna make us not want you”. This is a classic example of attachment wounds making it difficult for teens who have experienced trauma to believe any future caregivers will love them unconditionally.
Stef and Lena are good, loving foster parents who understand that trust is a two-way street; they tell Callie “we’d like to start earning yours”, after they apologise for not immediately believing her when she denies an accusation from another student that she sold them drugs at school. Callie says she’s “just an easy target” and they fully understand her position. This is a breath of fresh air in comparison to the many other depictions of foster care within film and television which often only show abusive foster homes until kids eventually get adopted. We can see in The Fosters, even if Callie and Jude did move onto another home, their time with Stef and Lena would always be a good memory and never be forgotten. When their birth father eventually terminates his rights, on Callie’s request, he somewhat shamefully admits “I’ll always be your Dad, I’m just not a parent” and they hug him goodbye, showing the complex dynamics between foster children and their biological parents.
The show also explores issues that Stef and Lena’s other children go through. Jesus and Mariana grapple with their Hispanic cultural identity and meeting their birth mother after being apart for nine years, and Brandon faces tricky situations being the birth child who must learn compassion for his non-biological siblings and share out the love and time that his parents hold for each of their five children.
The most effective part of The Fosters is the way it doesn’t try to romanticise adoption and fostering and make it all look like a walk in the park. It is honest about the lack of trust and childhood trauma that many kids in the foster system experience and it does not avoid really difficult topics, including sexual and physical abuse, bullying, racism and homophobia. Overall, the main focus of the show is the lengths to which Stef and Lena will go to keep their children safe and secure, and it is beautiful to see the journey Callie and Jude go on from start to end.
AUTHENTICITY OF FOSTERING DEPICTION:
Verdict: Ultimately, the portrayal of foster care in The Fosters feels very authentic and true to life. The characters appear well researched and are recognisable to those of us in the fostering world. It does not shy away from exploring tough, but very real, topics, and always finds the way back to its central message; that biological relations do not automatically define a family – love, support, acceptance and commitment do.
Note: It must be observed that fostering depictions may be accurate for the US whilst still being inaccurate in terms of the UK system.