Instant Family

Instant Family

The movie “Instant Family” has drawn praise from child welfare organizations for its funny, yet honest portrayal of foster care and adoption. The movie addresses a number of issues common to people as they first approach the idea of foster parenting. Amy Boyack a Utah Foster Care Foster-Adoptive Consultant, gives her own review of the film, inspired by real events from the life of writer/director Sean Anders.

“Instant Family” is a powerful movie that offers a funny, yet honest portrayal of foster care and adoption. Most importantly, it provides an opportunity for us to change the narrative about the world of foster parenting.

Frequently-asked question: Does it take a ‘special’ person to be a foster parent? 

Pete and Ellie have drifted into their late 30’s, focusing on their career of flipping houses, and not put much thought into when or how they are going to have children.  When discussing becoming parents, Pete suggests that he doesn’t want to be an old father and jokes they should adopt an older child.

In Utah, we see people from all backgrounds decide they want to become foster parents. They are married, single, homeowners, renters – what they have in common is the desire to help children who have experienced trauma because of abuse and neglect.

The couple ends up fostering a sibling group. Is that realistic? Yes! Two-thirds of children in foster care are part of a sibling group:

Pete and Ellie stumble into the world of foster care adoption after looking at waiting children’s photos online. They hope to take in one small child – but when they meet a rebellious 15-year-old girl (part of a package deal with her 2 younger siblings), they find themselves speeding from zero to three kids overnight. Now, Pete and Ellie must hilariously try to learn the ropes of instant parenthood in the hopes of becoming a family.

Initially, of course, Pete is gung-ho about the idea of fostering a sibling group, saying that he and Ellie are good at seeing the potential in things and fixing them up. He manages to compare kids in foster care to rescue dogs and houses that are falling apart. This kind of early idealism, though rarely uttered so clumsily, is not uncommon among foster parents initially.

The movie contains plenty of slapstick humor, but it’s hard to think of a single problem or issue in foster care that does not come up. For example, Ellie’s family thinks it’s a terrible idea for them to take in someone else’s “damaged goods.” They start off thinking of taking in one child, but then end up with three because they don’t want to break up a sibling group.

Keeping brothers and sisters together is extremely important. Staying together helps all of the siblings feel more comfortable when placed in a new, unfamiliar home. Often, older siblings have been the ones taking care and parenting their younger siblings.

Moreover, the teenage girl in the group is used to acting as the mother for her siblings and thinks of herself as an adult and not someone who would have to live by someone else’s rules anymore. The children have trouble sleeping and eating, and they have difficulty adjusting to a routine. Pete and Ellie’s marriage suffers under the stress—they even wonder for a minute if they should give the kids back.

Reunification with the biological family is the primary goal.  Interaction with the biological family is common.

And then there is the biological mother of the children, who’s been in and out of jail and using drugs but shows up wanting the children back. Substance abuse is among the most common reasons children end up in foster care. Pete and Ellie are faced with the possibility that, even after everything they have done to build up a trusting and loving relationship with the children over the course of several months, the children may return to their mother. The movie pulls no punches about the fact that family reunification is the name of the game. And as long as the mother has remained clean and followed a reunification plan, she will be giving the opportunity to have her children reunified back with her. This is true in all states, including Utah.

The movie is a comedy, so you can probably guess how things work out. In real life, things might have just as easily gone differently. The truth is that couples like Pete and Ellie are special because unlike so many other Americans with the time and resources, they decide to bring a stranger’s children into their home. But if enough of the public take the movie’s message to heart, maybe Pete and Ellie won’t be so special after all.