Of the 440,000 kids in foster care in the U.S., more than a quarter are over age 12. Adoption rates for these older kids are abysmally low. What happens when you're “too old” to get adopted? After 20 years in foster care, Noel Anaya was never adopted. He was determined to investigate what went wrong, and finds the answers in his first documentary film UNADOPTED. GOOD DOCS sat down with Noel to discuss.
Interview questions by Grace Wagner
This film seems incredibly personal to you, as it not only chronicles your experience in foster care and aging out, but also tracks similar experiences of children currently going through it. Was there ever a time when it felt too personal?
Everything feels personal because of how close to home this topic is, but one thing I've learned from that lifestyle, as well as this line of work, is not to take it personally. I'm a storyteller, I tell stories, I focus on narratives that need more awareness and I try to stay professional while showing empathy.
After watching UNADOPTED, I realized how little information or conversation there is around this process. Why do you think adoption, foster care, and the lingering impacts or both, are so unspoken or unknown for those who didn’t directly experience it?
It would seem so consuming to find that answer as it stands, maybe even potentially controversial in some instances but I would put my money on saying that it's bigger than we really realize and this statement is coming from someone who basically served a life sentence in this system. The real question is why aren't we getting educated about topics like this in public schools, why do we have to pay for this knowledge if you're an outsider who has never been in care, why are the general populations so naive on social topics that directly affect the future of America, think about it, a billion-dollar industry throwing half its population of young kids to their demise, how is this not the biggest issue, they're only children.
Do you feel having that shared experience of going through foster care between you and Sequoia and Chris allowed you to better understand this story and/or allow them to be more inclined to open up to you?
There's no doubt that the mutual experience set for an unprecedented amount of trust within a short timeframe. From their powerful stories, they solidify the systematic horrors I imagined happen in certain parts of California, a state that America paints as the golden state for foster care, yet what I unraveled was concerning.
Since you worked with underage subjects, was it difficult to get through any legal or guardian obstacles?
You'd think yes, but not at all I did an unusual casting call, instead of YR Media sourcing young folks, I decided that I will be the running point in finding individuals through my own platforms that I built ground up over the years so any young person interested either was sourced through the parent who was on board or a young person who was interested that had supportive foster parents because of the credibility I had earned over time. I felt like this was the way to go if we wanted to be as genuine as possible.
So many of these stories from the subjects’ backgrounds are intensely traumatic. Did you find it difficult to receive these stories or have these children and youth open up to you?
It's never easy hearing hurting people speak from their heart, it was all just so touching. I have had the training and coping mechanisms that prevent the integrity of my emotions to not get compromised, I think if I didn't properly prepare for this story beat, then unadopted would look much different, but I've spent years preparing to tell my story.
Are there any steps taken to care for the mental health of these children and youth?
All young people in care are entitled to free wrap-around services as well as free therapy, just ask your casa and or social worker. If this message is passed to young kids or not is unsure. But one thing that's for certain is that we need to destigmatize mental health services as the norm for everyone to access judgment-free.
The term “adoptable” is used frequently in the film. Can you further break down the meaning of this word and its significance? Do we know what makes people unadoptable?
"Adoptable" is still a vague general legal term that I hope does not gain a trend of usage along with “age out” and “needy” but to also add and answer your end part of that, there are several variables to being deemed unadoptable, it could range from, bio parents who have a chance or interest on adopting, are parents rights terminated? I have a theory I'm not sure I can find anyone to admit but maybe behavior? Which if the case, would bring up numerous controversies.
These children going through the process of foster care and aging out of the system are given too much responsibility and agency over the legality of it all. Do you feel like there is an alternate solution to allowing them to have some say, while also not expecting them to be their own lawyer, in a sense?
If and when the court determines a young person to be unadoptable, then I think we should invest in how the emancipation process looks like. Right now, as the emancipation process stands, it felt like a divorce. I lose HALF of everything in a damned system I never asked to be a part of, yet it's in their power to take away half. In an ideal work, the parent never stops supporting the child and for rich families even after death. So why do they have the law set up on blatantly screwing us? It's outdated. The solution is to change laws, not just names.
In your experience and to your knowledge, do you think it is common for children to reunite with their birth parent(s)?
Yes, I want to say, adoption/ emancipation/ reunification are the 3 biggest outcomes of foster care. But just because a child like myself at the time, reunifies with my parents, does not mean I achieved reunification, I do not or have ever since being placed in foster care have ever lived with my mother, so I do not let them write me off as if they did a good job for my family.
What sort of generalization, expectations, or stereotypes are you hoping to eradicate or clarify with this film?
I want people to adopt more teens.
Who was your intended audience in making this film?
My intended audiences are parents, workers of the system, parents interested in adopting.
Why is this an important film for people who have never been in foster care or have any experience with it to watch?
Because this film, whether or not people accept it, is a cultural film, foster care is a culture, don't hide your story and upbringing, be proud of who you are.
How can this film be used in an educational setting? How would you imagine teachers and professors using it?
It could serve so many purposes because the documentary has a lot of plot threads that could be expanded on any educational level, that's the beauty of UNADOPTED!
If people are touched by the sentiments and ideas you presented in UNADOPTED, what are some steps they can take to get further involved?
There's a good start on those who can donate to donate. But I'd say that those who can be parents and or have the space for a child that is generally good, need to step up to the plate and challenge themselves to pay it back to the communities in which they reside. The minimal work would at least be to reach out to local adoption and foster care agencies and sign up to become a mentor or an advocate.