Foster Shock, Documentary on Florida's Broken Foster Care System, Debuts at Film Festival

Former New Times reporter Kyle Swenson.
Former New Times reporter Kyle Swenson.
Courtesy of Foster Shock

A few years ago, a teenager approached Mari Frankel, a local documentarian, saying she'd been abused at Pembroke Pines' Center for Adolescent Treatment Services, which houses boys and girls ages 14 to 18 who have emotional, behavioral, or mental-health issues. The girl claimed she'd been drugged by staff there. But Frankel was struggling to confirm any aspect of the girl's story — until former New Times reporter Kyle Swenson began covering the center on his own.

"I Googled what she said, and up pops Kyle's article saying the exact same thing," Frankel says. "It was amazing."

Swenson's story found that teens at the center, which is run by Citrus Health Network, repeatedly reported having been injected with sedatives —  "booty juice," they called the drugs —  designed to knock the girls blissfully unconscious if they didn't cooperate with administrators. The story described the center as a "gulag-like holding pen for damaged, low-income kids" where "children compete to earn 'points' while supervised by a low-educated and reportedly abusive staff."

Frankel took that story — and others like it — and melded them into a single documentary called Foster Shockwhich will debut at 11 a.m. Saturday at the G-Star School of the Arts. The film has been included the Palm Beach International Film Festival, which runs through April 14. (The film will be screened again at West Palm's Muvico Parisian 20 on April 13.) She also interviewed Swenson, who has since moved to Cleveland, for the film.

Frankel told New Times that six years ago, she began working as a guardian for foster-care children in the court system. "My very first case was a little boy who was 11 years old and was in a therapeutic foster home," she says. "I knew something was really wrong. I found out within 48 hours that he was being sexually abused in that home and had been for a year and a half." After she reported the abuse to the police, the boy was pulled from the home — but, Frankel says, another boy was placed in the home days later, only to be raped on his first night.

"I've really never gotten over that, to this day," Frankel says. "I couldn't believe they let that happen."

The film lays out what she says has gone wrong with the state's foster care system. Florida, she says, spends more than $3 billion a year on foster care. "But every case I've had has been just as bad in different ways," she says. "Whether it's a horrible group home that I wouldn't let the staff babysit my child, or the conditions of the homes are bad. Some of the personal needs for the kids — school clothes, belongings — aren't met. There's nothing in the system that works for these children."

The problem, she says, is that the average person isn't aware of the way the foster-care system even works. 

Seventeen "community-based care" companies handle most of the kids in Florida, she says. "Most are nonprofit, but these companies have CEOs, COOs, CFOs that need salaries," she says. "Some of these companies have hired 50 different subcontractors. The CEOs of these companies are making anywhere from $150,000 to $500,000 a year." In the meantime, she says, Florida's 22,000 foster children live underneath the poverty line. "None of that's trickling down to the children," she says.

Last year, a New Times investigation found that the state's "group homes," which house abandoned children or kids facing criminal charges, are virtual madhouses, where kids often run free around town and are sometimes abused by other housemates.

Watch the trailer for Foster Shock here:

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