New Web Series Finds Humanity and Humor in the Foster Care System
Emmy-nominated director Nicole Opper has just released a new docuseries called The F Word that explores her efforts, along with her wife Kristan, to navigate the foster-adopt system in the Bay Area. The series provides an in-depth look into the foster-adopt process that is deeply personal, educational, and funny. We caught up with Opper to learn how she managed to strike this difficult balance with such a sensitive subject, how things are going in her foster-adopt journey, and her plans for Season 2. (Watch the first episode at the end of this article, and then contribute to Opper's crowdfunding campaign here if you want to see another Season of this important work!)
Gays With Kids: Tell us a bit more about The F Word. What can viewers expect?
Nicole Opper: The F Word is a short form docuseries that is incredibly personal and a little bit comedic. It follows the experience that my wife and I have had adopting a child from foster care. We started filming a year and a half ago and the entire process, from making a decision to form a family in this way up until a placement was made was about two years. We wanted to pull back the curtain a little bit about what adopting from foster care looks like. When we started the process we couldn't find a lot of resources that were really brutally honest about what this looks like, and what kids often go through before they come to your home. There were some good books and articles, but nothing in terms of a documentary that took a close look at the process.
GWK: Your series manages to do something incredible difficult while tackling such a sensitive subject: be funny. How did you strike that balance?
NO: From beginning we said, okay, this will be unwatchable if we only focus on the elements of foster care that the mainstream media focuses on, which is trauma. So wanted to get as far away from that as possible, while also taking care not to sugar coat anything or twist the story. But the humor also just cam every naturally. The foster care system is just such a bizarre, bureaucratic world. It made us laugh at every turn. You don't see this in the series, but in the beginning we had these required training courses every Saturday. You read from this binder, and it's this terrible route educational experience. It's pretty terrible. But there was this one woman in our class who fell asleep immediately each time class started. And she snored really loudly. No one woke her up or encouraged her to go take a walk or have a cup of coffee. It was just so emblematic of the strange bizarre world we were getting ourselves into. We also ended up hiring an animator right away who did all these funky homemade animations of us with bobbleheads to not only bring moments of levity, but also help bring us into certain situations that we couldn't film. Like when I go to a family fair, which are these odds schmooze-fests that are like speed dating with social workers where you go from table to table and talk about why they should pick you. I couldn't film there. But it was such a necessary part of the story in my mind. So we animated those parts.
GWK: How much did you know about the foster care system before you set out on this process?
NO: I wasn't eager to go in front of the camera, but when we started thinking about adopting from foster care and looking around for stories that reflected that experience, we couldn't find any. But we were obviously going to have complete access to our own process which I could document and share as a resource. I also did a lot of research. I knew that a lot of the kids came from trauma, and that you only wind up in the foster care system if you are a victim of abuse, neglect or abandonment. But I also learned about how racist and classist the system can be. For example, a lot of research suggests that it's not that there aren't plenty of people of color interested in adopting kids from foster care, it's just that they aren't really interested in working with a historically racist and classist system. So instead you see a lot of informal kinship adoption with communities of color. But the idea of being finger printed through the formal foster care system can be a red flag for a lot of black people dealing with racial profiling. These are some elements we're hoping to explore a lot more of in season 2.
GWK: What has the feedback been so far to the series?
NO: There are six episodes in the season, we're just now getting started on season two. The response has been surprisingly overwhelming. People feel so strong about this subject, and those familiar with it can see themselves in it. The goal for me as a documentary filmmaker is to make it relatable and accessible to an audience. And I've been blown away by the comments. People are just really eager to find out what happens next. And they're excited for us to get a kid. It's just really interesting for me since this was such a personal film.
GWK: How has your experience been as a same-sex couple within the foster care system. Do you think it differs from the experience of heterosexual couples?
NO: We live in the Bay Area bubble so we never experienced any overt discrimination for being gay. The social workers are pretty used to us by now. But there were a lot of little things, like being asked our coming out story during the home study process. I kept wondering, at what point do they ask straight people when they knew they were straight? It was bizarre that they cared. There were also some moments attending these family fairs in these small towns that are a little bit red. I got a lot of strange looks at those fairs, people would look at me like I was lost. It made a huge difference when my feminine-presenting wife showed up with me, and it suddenly clicked and they understood. There's a lot more to be said for LGBTQ people in other states. In Michigan, it's come out that LGBTQ people have been discriminated against for wanting to adopt from foster care. We have a bunch of states doing this right now—Alabama, Texas, North Dakota, Virginia, Mississippi. It's tempting to think that this would never touch the Bay Area or California. But then again... Prop 8. We forget our history quickly. Progress can reverse in the blink of an eye. We can't ever really stop fighting for these rights. So something we're doing is partnering with a lot of national organizations who are invested in improving the lives of children in foster care. Among these are the Human Rights Campaign, Raise a Child, which is based in LA, Together we Rise, and the Family Equality Council. We're partnering with all these wonderful organizations in order to create impact guides and resources. We also plan to do targeted outreach to communities where the series can have the greatest impact.
GWK: You've mentioned work has already begun on Season 2 of The F Word. What can viewers expect?
We will continuing to follow the developments with our son, whose adoption we finalized on oct 6th. We'll take you through the major milestones of that experience. But for Season 2 we're also trying to move away form our personal story and look more outward at the system, and who's trying to reform it. There's so much great work happening right now. We want to celebrate that while also critiquing a broken system. We'll ask, what are the solutions here? What can we all do to improve the situation for all of these kids? We're going to do a lot more talking to foster youth and former foster youth, judges, lawyers, social workers, getting a better sense of the big picture.