Social Work

9 Must-See Movies for Child, Youth and Family Social Workers

9 Must-See Movies for Child, Youth and Family Social Workers
Movies can help aspiring social workers explore the relevant issues in penetrating, moving, and insightful ways. Image from Unsplash
Nedda Gilbert profile
Nedda Gilbert May 21, 2019

Who doesn't love a good Hallmark drama?

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According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, in 2017 there were approximately 443,000 children in foster care in the United States. Of the more than 690,000 children who had spent time in foster care, those who find permanent (adoptive) placements wait an average of 1.5 years, and those who never find forever homes, according to research, experience higher rates of homelessness, unemployment and incarceration as adults.

Individuals contemplating a career in child, youth and family social work need to face these grim data and the issues that frame them. How do we strengthen families and protect children at-risk? Can children overcome a childhood spent in foster care or institutions?

These are provocative questions for which there are no easy answers—but movies can help aspiring social workers explore the relevant issues in penetrating, moving, and insightful ways. Here are nine films that tell the stories of children dealing with adoption, foster care, and new family situations, and of the parents, officials, and social workers whom they engage.

Directed by her husband, Bryan Tucker, Closure tells the true story of Angela Tucker, a black adoptee who was raised by white parents. The film chronicles the two years Angela spends trying to find and connect with her biological family. Viewers see Angela not just in search of her family members, but also in search of her roots, culture, and identity.

With its themes of racial identity and its exploration of the difficulties of transracial adoption, Closure raises important questions all social workers should consider.

Congratulations, You’re On Your Own: Life After Foster Care
Congratulations, You’re On Your Own: Life After Foster Care is a Hilton Foundation-funded documentary that is part of its Foster Youth Strategic Initiative aimed at supporting youth leaving the child welfare system. These real-life stories of young adults—”transition-age youth,” as the film terms them—who have recently left the foster care system are told by the youths themselves as well as by professionals in the foster-care world.

Social workers considering this field will see moving stories of transition-age youth navigating life on their own and facing challenges along the way. The film powerfully emphasizes the importance of providing these young adults with a support network in order to facilitate their successful adaptation to adulthood.

The Dark Matter of Love
The Dark Matter of Love is a documentary following the Diaz family as they adopt three children from a Russian orphanage. Expecting a joyous experience, the Diaz parents struggle with both cultural barriers and their adoptees’ troubled past in their efforts to bond. To help, they enlist the aid of world-famous developmental psychologist Dr. Robert Marvin.

The film includes rare archival footage of science experiments from Dr. Marvin’s research, which in itself would make Dark Matter worth watching. The film also raises the provocative question of the extent to which nature and/or nurture influence behavior.

Foster is an HBO documentary chronicling true stories about children in the foster care system. With never-before access to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (the largest county child welfare agency in the country), the filmmakers head into courtrooms, foster homes, juvenile centers, hospitals, and the neighborhoods of Los Angeles to capture what goes on in foster care in the United States, and even upend some myths.

Foster could be required viewing for social workers in any field, as the lessons learned from the first-hand accounts of families working their way through a mostly well-meaning but overwhelmed system in this documentary are invaluable. Depicting foster care options ranging from caring relatives to congregate care, Foster illuminates the breadth and depth of the challenges facing anyone hoping to improve the foster care system.

A major commercial success and Academy Award winner, Precious is by far the best-known film on this list. Based on the book Push by Sapphire, Precious tells the story of a teen girl—illiterate, morbidly overweight, and abused emotionally and sexually—who is pregnant with her second child. The film touches on the effects of abuse, inner-city life, and the challenges of overcoming a difficult childhood. Through the intervention of a school principal, Precious is placed in an alternative school where she receives the attention she had previously lacked.

Precious is a story of second chances. Aspiring social workers will see the impact of a traumatic childhood—a circumstance many youth face—filled with neglect and abuse. The film highlights the importance of the right support at the right time.

Safe Harbor
Safe Harbor is a Hallmark movie that serves up a feel-good script but nonetheless touches on important issues. The film is based on the true story of the Safe Harbor Boys Home, a residential and educational program for at-risk teen boys located on the Saint Johns River in Jacksonville, Florida. The home, founded by a married couple, provides vocational-tech training in maritime and boating skills as well as a high school education to teens who would otherwise be in juvenile detention. The program has a 95 percent success rate.

Safe Harbor highlights the importance of support, education, and structure in giving male teens—a notoriously difficult group to treat—a sense of purpose.

A Shine of Rainbows
A Shine of Rainbows tells the story of Tomas, an eight-year-old orphan adopted by a warm and caring woman and her distant husband. As Tomas struggles to be accepted, he happens upon an abandoned baby seal on the beach and finds an outlet for the love that has been missing from his life.

A Shine of Rainbows reveals the difficulties children experience adapting to a new home and movingly depicts family members struggling to make a connection.

Short Term 12
Short Term 12 is a 2013 dramatic film written and directed by Destin Danile Cretton and adapted from his short film of the same name. The story is based on Cretton’s own experience working in a group home for teenageers. The film stars Brie Larson as Grace Howard, who runs a foster care center for at-risk teens and is in a relationship with a coworker, Mason. Grace is a formidable and confident leader, but when a new girl shows up at the home, her own past is triggered. Everything changes, including her relationship with Mason.
Critics lauded this film because of its honest and thoughtful depiction of institution life. Captured are the daily minutiae and small transactions that depict how counselors like Grace find ways to connect with their charges.

Tough Love
The documentary Tough Love, from Emmy-nominated filmmaker Stephanies Wang-Breal, chronicles the story of two parents, one in Seattle and one in New York City, both of whom have lost custody of their children to child protective services. The film follows their efforts to redeem themselves in two different child welfare systems and prove they are worthy of being parents. Getting a second chance turns out to be a tortuous process as they encounter a complex and entrenched bureaucracy.

Sharing her perspective on why this is an important watch, filmmaker Wang-Breal told Youth Today “I think there’s a lot of different takeaways from this film, depending on where you’re sitting at the table… For judges, I think it’d be great if they could have a little bit more compassion for the parents and think about the way we talk to parents … In terms of social workers and foster parents, I think we need to think a little bit more about where these parents are coming from and what kind of childhood they came from before we can judge them.”

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Author

Ms. Nedda Gilbert is a seasoned clinical social worker, author, and educational consultant with 25 years of experience helping college-bound and graduate students find their ideal schools. She is a prolific author, including The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and Essays that Made a Difference. Ms. Gilbert has been a guest writer for Forbes and a sought-after keynote speaker on college admissions. Previously, she played a crucial role at the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company and was Chairman of the Board of Graduate Philadelphia. Ms. Gilbert holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is a certified interdisciplinary collaborative family law professional in New Jersey.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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