Representing foster youth and families on television
As CBS Corporation’s executive vice president and chief corporate content licensing officer, Scott Koondel is accustomed to making significant rights deals with top television platforms.
But perhaps no transaction has been as personally important as the deal he made with his foster parents as a youngster.
“I entered foster care when I was 10,” Koondel said. “I was abused, and ran away before I was 13. The deal I made with [my foster parents] was: I won’t come back and kill you, if you don’t report me missing.”
Despite that less than auspicious start, Koondel’s story has a happy ending. Nowadays, of the 400,000 youth in the U.S. foster care system, 70% want to pursue post-secondary education – but only 3% do. Koondel attended college and established a successful career in television. Recently, more than three decades after he left the system, he began speaking publicly about his foster care experience.
“When you’re in 10 homes, you feel, ‘No one wants me,’” acknowledged Koondel, who now has a wife and family of his own. “I’ve been haunted and damaged by my childhood. I was embarrassed and I didn’t want to explain it. But I came out. I did a lot of work on myself. I don’t have to have the perception [any more] of not having the pedigree.”
Koondel shared his story during a public program which turned the spotlight on foster care issues and the representation of foster youth and foster families on television. Presented by the Television Academy Foundation and FosterMore, “The Power of TV: Foster Care in Storytelling” featured a panel discussion from industry pros as well as insights from audience members.
Joining Koondel on the panel were Gemma Baker, co-creator-co-executive producer of CBS sitcom Mom; Nkechi Okoro Carroll, writer and co-executive producer of Fox’s January medical drama The Resident; Derek Haas, co-creator and executive producer of NBC’s drama Chicago Fire; and Joanna Johnson, executive producer of Freeform’s drama The Fosters. Moderating was David Ambroz, executive director of corporate citizenship and social responsibility for the Disney|ABC Television Group and co-founder of FosterMore, a coalition of nonprofits which raises awareness of youth in the foster care system. The program was held at the Saban Media Center at Academy headquarters in North Hollywood.
Ambroz also grew up in foster care. For FosterMore, he said, “The idea is to tell stories that are not the horrible things about foster care, but the positive things.”
To evoke the positive on The Fosters, about a married lesbian couple whose family primarily comes from foster care, “We just humanize these children and the family that took them in,” Johnson said. “I’m an adoptive parent, and I’m married to a woman. It’s seeing these children not as horribly flawed, and not someone to be frightened of. We show how they can thrive with love, and that there’s nothing to be frightened of.”
Carroll said she’s a huge fan of The Fosters: “It’s normalizing what these kids are.” She should know: She and her husband have a biological son and a son they adopted via foster care. “Every pilot I’ve written has included some form of a blended family with foster care,” she said. “I want people to see that you can tell entertaining, beautiful stories about these kids.”
Chicago Fire featured a storyline in which paramedic-turned-firefighter Gabriela Dawson fostered and wanted to adopt a young boy whom she’d rescued in a house fire; she lost him to the boy’s biological father, who had only just learned he had a son. “The show represents what goes on in the city,” Haas said. “Sometimes we get emotionally invested in the victims.”
On Mom, in which a mother and daughter struggle with recovery from alcoholism and for the mom, drug abuse as well, mother Bonnie’s back story includes her growing up in the foster care system. And another recovering alcoholic, Jill, decides to become a foster parent after a miscarriage, thanks to a conversation with Bonnie.
“Our show deals with addiction and recovery – foster care is so much a part of that,” Baker noted. To write about fostering, “We did the research,” she said. “Allison Janney (Bonnie) goes to documentaries; she watched [2010 foster care documentary] First Circle.” Janney also takes in her friends’ and her own experiences, “and fills in the rest.”
The Fosters team also does research. A fictional group home for foster girls is based on a real one; residents came to the show to talk to the cast. One issue the show delved into is the privatization of the foster system, in which fostering is a for-profit business with substandard vetting of prospective parents because everyone’s goal is to make money.
A problem in the foster-to-adopt system, Carroll noted, is that boys are more difficult to place than girls. She and her husband had themselves planned to adopt a girl. “At the first orientation, you hear the stories about how the boys are not adopted; they say the boys are too spirited,” she recalled. “These are just kids who want love and have great potential, and they’re being discarded. In five minutes, we changed our experience.”
Johnson had a similar experience. “The social worker said, ‘No one wants a black boy,’” she related. “We said, ‘We do.’”
What has the viewer reaction been to the shows and stories?
“The fans were fully invested in what our foster kid’s fate was going to be,” Haas said of Chicago Fire. “I got on Twitter, and they were responding. They were so emotional. When [Dawson] lost out, they were not happy with me.”
On The Fosters, “We have been so grateful by how many people have decided to become foster parents,” Johnson said. “Foster kids say, ‘I see myself.’ We’re very grateful to ABC Family [as Freeform was known when the series premiered] for putting the show on.”
One fan of The Fosters was invited audience guest Marquis Williams, a graduate of Cal State University at Northridge who had been in foster care from ages eight through 12 and this year published a book, Beating the System: My Life in Foster Care.
“When I’m out in the world, I don’t see myself reflected too much,” said Williams, who is now pursuing an MBA at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. “I like The Fosters. It touches on issues that affect foster youth. In the foster system you have that feeling of not being wanted, that if you mess up or get in trouble in school, they’ll send you to a different home. The Fosters is normalizing youth.”
Certainly, there are more stories to be told. Koondel revealed that just that day, Warner Bros. Pictures president Toby Emmerich had told him about plans for a Shazam superhero film where all eight heroes had been in foster care. Where once Koondel was silent about foster care, “I lean into it now,” he said. “It began for me about diversity on television. You have to reflect society and values on television. People can make society better.”
In telling those stories, Haas advised, “If you want to show conflict, show something different. Most of the time, the social worker is uncaring and overworked. [The Chicago Fire social worker] is sharp. She cares. Try to surprise the audience with an angle that hasn’t been done before. Do the research, talk to real people.”
While Johnson said her show has to have conflict, she also felt, “We could do a better job of showing more foster families, having people be more open to fostering and adopting.” On Mom, Baker said, “We have done a lot with Bonnie going into her past, not letting that fuel her addiction, realizing that her difficult experience is what makes her who she is, and accepting that.”
Persistence can be as important as plotline when it comes to trying to sell foster care stories. An audience member named Nancy recounted how she and wife Heather, both writers who have pitched projects based on their experience raising foster kids, were told by various executives that “The Fosters is great. We already have a foster show.”
“I never listen to people when they say, ‘We don’t want it,’” Haas said. Agreed Carroll, “Don’t stop. If you have a passion for it, write, and it will come around.”
Koondel described television’s current attention to the foster care system as the creation of a movement. And, said Johnson, “I think many foster kids believe they have to keep it a secret, because it’s uncomfortable. We need to say to them: We see you.”