You have to blend in, in this world because if your flaws are a little bit different, you sort of fall short, and I don’t want to do that.” -Teruko, Foster Youth
What do legendary icons like Marilyn Monroe, Eddie Murphy, Maya Angelou, James Dean and John Lennon have in common with Shani Heckman, the creator of the documentary, America’s Most Unwanted (Facebook, Twitter)? Like me, you might be surprised to find that they are all foster youth, men and women who at some point in their lives were a part of the foster care system.
The documentary, narrated by Shani in the film’s opening and closing credits, looks at the lives of four young women: Savi, Teruko, Baba (who is later referenced as Connor in the closing credits) and Valerie aka “Queenie.” These women, all of whom were foster youth, give first-hand accounts of their experiences in the foster care system and the added challenges they faced having identified as LGBT.
This eye-opening, multi-narrative highlights the short comings of foster care, the struggles of LGBT youth and what it is to be a young man or woman dealing with both living in the system.
“It’s really hard to be queer in foster youth. I’ve had group home staff tell me that they’re not gonna put the new girl in my room because I might rape them in the middle of the night … not everybody is educated so they don’t really know that much about it. And there’s a lot of people that are hurt. Sometimes I think the way for people to cope with their own hurt is to hurt others,” says Savi, a foster youth who, at the time she was featured in the film, had been placed 52 separate times in the past 10 years.
The first-hand accounts of the foster youth featured in the documentary, gives the film a raw truth that forces the audience to face the harsh realities of this country’s foster care system. Had said stories not come from the mouths of the women themselves, and via Shani or some third-party narrator instead, I don’t think they would have been as impactful in getting their message across. Furthermore, Shani’s choice to focus on a variety of youth from different backgrounds, various identifications within the LGBT community, at varying stages in their lives, gives the film a broader perspective rather than the limited scope of one particular script of experiences.
Throughout the documentary a series of statistics and studies, specifically geared toward LGBT foster youth, appear on the screen in between narratives. Mark Leno, a member of the California State Senate, discusses some of this data regarding foster youth within his state. In particular, Leno highlights the 85,000 youth who are in foster care, and the sad reality that less than half of them will graduate from high school and one-third of them will end up homeless, jobless, on government aid or locked up in the criminal justice system.
The film closes out with a sort of “Where are they now?” segment on the youth featured in the documentary including Shani, who uses this section to note that it was made, in part, to complete her Master’s degree from San Francisco State University, in addition to highlighting her emotional struggle in making the film.
If there was any criticism I would make about the documentary it would be that it left me wanting to hear more of Shani’s story. She speaks of life as a foster youth briefly, in the beginning of the documentary and in the film’s closing credits, but I think sharing more of her own experience would have provided a different perspective on what foster care can do for someone like herself who feels, “foster care saved my life.”