If Oliver Twist were written today, he'd probably be in foster care. Being "in the system" is the new orphanage, the entertainment shorthand for "abused and neglected." Social services undeniably have problems, but TV's overwhelmingly negative view of both fostered youth and foster homes worsens them by perpetuating a stereotype of irretrievably damaged kids and cruel, greedy parents. No one wins here: neither the kids who need care nor those discouraged from giving it.
A character who is described as "damaged" will probably reveal that she (most often female) was fostered. Jessica Jones is the most recent example; she has PTSD, is an alcoholic, and generally doesn't play well with others. Luke Cage describes her as "a hard-drinking, short-fused mess of a woman" and must reassure her she's "not a piece of shit." She's beautiful, tough, and more than a bit worse for the wear from her traumatic childhood — you can tell by her calloused outlook and inevitable leather jacket.
Emma Swan on Once Upon a Time and Skye from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are also products of foster care. Like Jessica, they've got Abilities to go along with their issues. Emma actress Jennifer Morrison called her character "broken, damaged, and worldly."
Of course, the poster girl for this is Faith of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (although her backstory was nailed down in Go Ask Malice: A Slayer's Diary); you don't get much more broken and damaged than the fallen Slayer. Eliza Dushku said that Faith was "a very empowered woman, but she was also flawed […] she was in this gray area." Sci-fi depictions of foster kids focus heavily on young women who are physically strong, emotionally stunted, and always gorgeous — even suggesting that their damage makes them beautiful. Only Supergirl escapes this trope, maybe because Kara Danvers is, well, super-human.
TV gives little representation for the male foster experience. It's more present outside of sci-fi, but TV is less accepting of male traumatic loss — and, of course, fostering and loss are totally enmeshed. In fact, representation is so limited, it's challenging to produce multiple examples. Riverdale (Jughead and Chic) is more recent than others like The O.C. and The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but perpetuates the trope of damage and neglect. Jughead's (Cole Sprouse) social worker puts him with "a nice family on the south side," but later he says that he's going to live on his own and the foster family will lie to Social Services for him, presumably in exchange for the stipend they receive. Chic was given up for adoption but "bounced around the system" until he was 18.
Freeform's The Fosters is the rare positive — if soapy and not always accurate — depiction of foster care; while it does include Jude, a boy placed along with his sister, he doesn't remain a "foster" long. Positive examples of fostering tend to end in adoption, even though that is often not reality, where the goal is typically reunification with the biological family.
Foster parents — the ones who don't adopt — are commonly portrayed as evil and uncaring. They withhold from the children in their care, exclude them from their "real" family, and continue to mistreat them physically and/or emotionally. Sexual abuse is often implied or stated and foster homes tend to be quickly sketched in as places to be avoided or escaped as quickly as possible. The negative depiction may have a chilling effect when the opposite is greatly needed.
In 2016 there were an estimated 437,465 children in foster care. And yet, there is an annual turnover rate of up to 50 percent for qualified foster homes. One reason for this is media reinforcement. Dr. John DeGarmo, a foster parent and author, says, "The media focuses upon those negative stories about foster parents, thus helping to perpetuate an already negative viewpoint and stereotype of foster parents."
Amber Vernon, a mental health professional with experience in fostering and adoption, says accurate, compassionate representation is essential. "When representation is based entirely on stereotypes, that's not so good," she tells SYFY WIRE. She describes talking with her own child about media portrayal of kids in the system as "dangerous, bad, that they're broken, that there's something wrong with them." She points out that when TV families consider fostering, someone often asks, "Are you sure you want to do that? They might burn your house down."
This negativity influences both self-image and popular opinion. "It's what peers think about you, what teachers think about you, the medical community. Even with the best intentions, this works against the child." But there are real benefits. "Movies and TV let you get closer to difficult topics," Vernon says. "Sometimes hard-to-navigate subjects are easier with an external source." More accurate, thoughtful portrayals could mean better understanding and acceptance for everyone involved — and maybe even end the assumption that foster care means damage.