Films tell stories at twenty-four frames a second, or in spooling pixels, and some of the best take us inside the lives of people we would otherwise never meet. I often felt when I was making documentary films that I crossed an unmarked but very real border between one country and another, from the country of those of us who don’t worry about where our next meal is coming from, to the country within our country where food and shelter and safety are daily concerns and loss is at the center of every story.
One-fifth of American children live in poverty, a statistic that despite brief dips and rises has held steady for the last 50 years. Its predictable wreckage marks children early. I saw many young children in the neighborhoods in which I filmed already convinced of their unworthiness. They understood exactly where they stood in society. And they blamed themselves. By adolescence, many had come to believe they deserved their fate; that is, they had surrendered to a future someone else had imagined for them.
The first film I made was No Place Like Home, in 1993, a film about a homeless mother, Lori Wilson, and her three children. When I met them, Lori and her kids lived in one of the low-slung, by-the-week motels strung along Aurora. In those years the motels served as overflow shelters for homeless families in Seattle.
Before meeting Lori, I had spent three months visiting the motels, looking for a family with a compelling story to tell, essentially casting my film. Almost everyone I met in those motel rooms — rooms that smelled of mildew and ripe diapers, in which the blinds were inevitably drawn and the TV was on — had a story. Almost all of those stories began and ended in some poor neighborhood. In Yakima, in Boise, in Sacramento. In towns and cities all across the West.
I would drive from my apartment in leafy Madrona, down Denny Way, and north along Aurora Avenue to sit on the corner of an unmade bed and listen. It was probably not the smartest thing to do, to go alone, at night, in search of stories among people who may, or may not, have been using illegal substances in a vain attempt, it seems to me now, to cure whatever pain or terrifying mess they were in. The African American woman who’d been beaten by her boyfriend. The tow-headed boy about to be lost to — or saved by — foster care. The pregnant young white woman, with two toddlers. They were men and women with unique stories to tell and cogent, and often tragic, insight into their predicament.
My interlocutors treated me like a visitor from another world, which I was; like a mildly welcome distraction; and with the recognition, I felt, that I was free in a way they were not. I had, after all, a full tank of gas in my funky old Datsun.
The lives of those I talked to — white, Black, Hispanic — were tangled up with three social institutions that rarely touch the lucky rest of us: foster care, criminal justice (courts and prisons), and what we used to call welfare and are now supposed to call something else, but mostly still think of as welfare. These institutions are raw, inescapable realities for the poor. The mostly well-meaning workers in those places could humiliate and deny their clients resources by simply following protocols, or fail to keep their children safe or, at worst, tear families and loved ones apart, however necessary that might appear to others. However necessary that was. The people I talked to spoke of their encounters with these harsh facts of life in tones of indignation, derision, resignation.
Ronald Reagan’s election in 1981 began the dismantling of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the programs that sought, in the 1960s, to shore up the resources for and prospects of the elderly, the poor, the most disadvantaged among us. A New Morning dawned in my country in the 1980s and it meant that food banks like the one I coordinated in Spokane were doing a booming business as state mental hospitals were emptied out and people at the margins slid closer to destitution.
Critics often call the Great Society a waste, and ineffectual. In fact, in the short years of its existence, poverty rates began to fall among the elderly and poor children, exactly the population it was meant to assist; from 22 percent in 1959 to 12 percent in 1969. Rates began to rise steadily and rapidly during the 1980s. With some appreciable dips in the late 90s and early 2000s (think tech boom), the poverty rate in America in 2010 was 15 percent overall — 35 million Americans, many of them children. The rates were much higher among African-Americans (27 percent), single women heads-of-households (31 percent) and Hispanics (27 percent).
I mention what may seem like ancient political history not to stoke partisan sentiment, but rather to try to describe the context in which I made No Place Like Home, the context for Lori Wilson and her kids and for the others I met and made films about in those years.
In the best of times, it is difficult for many Americans to get by; the 1980s were not the best of times. Lori Wilson had done time in prison for dealing drugs. She suffered from serious depression. She was a survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence. “I have no good memories as far back as I can remember,” she says in No Place Like Home. She’d never had any money, to speak of, or opportunities, or ever found the traction in her life to head in another direction. When I met her, she was long reconciled to her fate. “I try to, you know, fit in,” Lori says in the film. “But it’s just like I’m always the outsider. And I don’t know why. I don’t know if I’m doing it to myself, or I’m just so used to it. That that’s just the way I fit into it, you know.”
Her kids, David, Donna, and her youngest, Barbie — who became the central character and narrator of my film — had been taken from their mother and placed in foster care homes while their mother was in prison. When I met them, they were recently reunited, and united in their desire to never be parted again. “I’ve only had two birthdays with my mom,” Barbie says in the film. “I mean without being in a foster home, I’ve only had two birthdays with my mom.” All Barbie ever wanted was to be with her mother — and with her father, whom Lori had left some years before. Barbie yearned for her father: “Just because he beat me, doesn’t mean I can’t love him, does it?” she says.
Barbie was 10-years-old when I made the film. She is now 31, a mother herself. We’ve kept in touch, on and off, over the years. Barbie was an adorable, precocious girl, with a sharp mind and a strong desire to be at the center of things and to tell her own story. Her round face, haloed by frizzy blond hair, carried my film all the way to the Venice Film Festival. Lori and the kids attended the film’s premiere at SIFF, in 1994. But Barbie has traveled a long road through ruin to get where she is now.
A decade after the film was made, Barbie — who wanted nothing more than to have her whole family together, whose entire being ached for that — lost her own child, her first-born son, to the foster care system. “My whole world fell apart,” she said recently. “I can never get that back, that time, his growing up.”
Barbie was raped when she was 12, by one of her mother’s boyfriends, an appalling reprise of what had happened to Lori Wilson herself. When Barbie told a school counselor about the rape, she once again was placed in foster care. “We’d been abused, before, in foster homes, me and my sister, beaten,” she says now about the years during which her mother was in prison. “I didn’t understand why we got taken then. I was five, six. I didn’t see brother or sister for two years. I had nobody, nobody to protect me.”
So she ran away, repeatedly, until DSHS finally allowed her to return home, six months later. The man who raped her hid when case workers came by. “He was still there but I wanted to go and be with my mom,” says Barbie. Even though her mother hadn’t protected her; couldn’t or wouldn’t. “Because it doesn’t matter how bad it is," says Barbie. "You’ll never have that feeling of family and love anywhere else. It’s all fake, anything else.”
Barbie started taking drugs, which were readily available. She kept it up for years, sobering up for a couple years when her son was born, then starting up again. She lost her son when he was three; her parental rights were eventually revoked. He now lives with a family who has adopted him. Barbie has been drug-free for five years, she says, and gets to see her son on occasion. He’s 11 now.
“He remembers me, he knows I’m his mom,” she says.
We prefer the stories of people who, against all odds, make it out. We all want to believe that whatever life might throw at us, we can overcome. Bootstraps, toughing it out, all that. It is a lonely story we Americans tell ourselves.
It’s more difficult to face real suffering, our own and others, and look at it, know it. As it is, we have abandoned kids like Barbie Wilson generation after generation. We have left them to their individual fates, in their despairing families, in their ravaged neighborhoods. And children like Barbie inevitably blame themselves. In the film, she tells us about being homeless, how frightening she finds it. “I get mad at myself,” she volunteers. “Because I think it’s my fault.”
After she lost custody of her first son, Barbie quit drugs. She went to school and now works as a certified nurse’s assistant. “I’m one of those blood people,” she says. “Phlebotomy. I take blood and stuff.” She makes $11.50 an hour.
Barbie Wilson has another child, a son, age four, and a husband now. She’s in touch with her father, who has gone straight, after years of dealing drugs. Barbie named her youngest son after him. She and her husband got married in Arizona, where her father lives, so that he could give her away.
I’m happy to know that, at least for now, Barbie has stepped back from that edge on which she lived for many years. She has her own family, a man who treats her well, a home in which she can feel safe. The gains are fragile, but real.
Lori Wilson died in 2009. She was 51. Barbie says she misses her mother every day. “She was too young to go,” she says.
Much has changed in the years since Lori Willson’s kids entered the foster care system. National organizations like Casey Family Programs in Seattle and the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore have worked to improve practices and public policies and develop models that do a better job of supporting foster families. Some states, including Washington, are shifting social services dollars to support struggling families in an effort to keep them together, when possible. More children in Washington and elsewhere are now being placed with relatives and kin, when appropriate, and returned to their families faster. More children who will never return to their birth families are being adopted and, as a result, will grow up with the love and comfort of a permanent home. And Casey and others have done much to improve training for the legions of social workers who provide direct services to at-risk families and make the difficult decisions about their fate. These are all positive developments.
I’m not a policy wonk. I don’t have any answers. I only know that the more we are able to find compassionate ways to keep more children from harm and more families afloat and together, the less often we will hear stories about children like Barbie, who grow up imperiled and bereft of family, with no place to call home.
To follow all Crosscut's coverage of at-risk youth, visit the Kids at Risk page.