Failure to Protect
Perspective of Accused Parents Featured in New Foster Care Documentary
Documentary filmmaker Jeremy Pion-Berlin grew up hearing stories of parents entangled in child welfare cases. For 35 years his mother has been the president of Parents Anonymous, a support group founded in 1969 for parents in the system. He started volunteering with the group as a teen.
In his latest documentary, “Failure to Protect,” he hopes to shed light on their stories and challenge the narrative around parents whose children enter foster care. The feature-length film premiered October 2021 in Los Angeles at the 12th Annual Awareness Film Festival, which spotlights social justice stories.
“There’s a perspective in America that if your kids have been taken away from you by the system, you’re a monster,” Pion-Berlin said in a Q&A session after the festival screening. “There are horrible parents out there, but they don’t make up the vast majority of these families that are in the child welfare system.”
“Failure to Protect” highlights the systemic racism and classism that have long plagued child welfare investigations and cases. The film, which features three California families whose children were removed from the home, shines a spotlight on the intergenerational trauma often at hand in system-involved families. Pion-Berlin spent three years interviewing stakeholders, including parents, attorneys, judges, social workers and the children.
In each case, a child accused a parent or other adult in the home of abuse, two of which are denied by the parents. Two of the three cases involved allegations of sexual abuse; one resulted in a felony conviction. This is not representative of how children typically wind up in foster care: in the majority of cases children are removed from their families due to symptoms of poverty, including housing instability and unmet mental health needs. Roughly 13% of foster care entries are due to physical abuse and around 4% are due to sexual abuse, according to federal data.
Anna Neal Negrete is featured in the documentary. She lost custody of the grandchild she’d adopted, after the death of his mother. She told Fostering Families Today, agreeing to be part of Pion-Berlin’s documentary was part of a “new calling” to show people the devastating power child protective systems have over families.
“We can’t get back what we lost, and there’s not enough money in the world to pay us for our son and the damage to our family,” Neal Negrete said, so she’s turning to advocacy: “Fire it up, crank on the engines, let’s go. Because it’s got to stop.”
While Pion-Berlin was repeatedly denied access to the families’ court hearings, viewers do hear from child protection social workers — including the caseworker who managed the Negrete family case. While the caseworker doesn’t speak about any particular case, juxtaposing her broad testimony about her work with the perspective of parents on her caseload crystallizes the impossible complexity and high stakes of every decision made in child welfare cases.
Pion-Berlin, who has worked with VICE, Discovery, HGTV and more, said he wants viewers to leave the film with a greater understanding of how families wind up in foster care cases — and how difficult it can be to advocate for yourself and your family from that position.
“The parents that fight, they lose,” he said. “No matter how unfair you feel like you’ve been treated, no matter how unjust it may be, the more you push, the more you try to fight, the longer they will have your kids and the more pain this will cause.” — Reviewed by Sara Tiano
Click https://vimeo.com/451205389 to see the trailer to Failure to Protect.
*Upcoming 2022 Screenings of Failure to Protect*