Chicago attorney and playwright Jay Paul Deratany was already a successful practitioner of the law when the case came across his desk. Something was different about it. It involved a woman who’d brought a 15- year-old-boy into her home to foster. The child would ultimately rape and severely injure a 3-year-old girl and 5-year-old boy over a couple of years, severely injuring them. The foster mother was not warned of the teen’s propensity for sexual and physical violence, although the agency who oversaw his care was aware.
It was during discovery that Deratany learned that the agency charged with the teen’s childcare was for-profit. He’d heard of for-profit prisons and corporations but had no idea that there were companies turning a profit by dealing in foster children. The company settled before trial for $23 million.
The case left a marked impression on Deratany, who was left thinking that the best interest of children should be left to government agencies, and not companies that are designed to make money. It also served as inspiration for the screenplay of “Foster Boy,” which went into production in 2018. The film has won many accolades at domestic and international film festivals, and is executive produced by Shaquille O’Neal, retired NBA star, who came on board after hearing the film’s message.
The movie, which has an impressive cast, wraps a social message in an interesting, gripping, well-played set of characters. It is a courtroom drama that keeps the viewer on the edge of his or her seat. Michael Trainer, played by Matthew Modine, is a lawyer at the center of a trial in which a for-profit foster care agency is accused of putting a known sex offender into the same foster home as his young client Jamal, played by Shane Paul McGhie, with catastrophic results. Michael, a successful litigator with a long career protecting corporate interests, wants nothing to do with Jamal’s case, but a judge forces him to accept it.
Even so, Michael cannot get past his first impression of Jamal; he sees Jamal as a punk kid off the street looking to grab a piece of corporate profits. However, when Jamal refuses to settle the case for any amount of money, Michael begins to understand the need to get Jamal’s story before a jury. In doing so, Michael exposes the horrifying depth of the corrupt and abusive for-profit foster care agency, and Michael is transformed from cynical skeptic to fierce warrior in the pursuit of justice.
McGhie said he had no idea that there was a for-profit foster care system in America, and although his character was fictional, there were many real-life children rolled into Jamal. The experience opened his eyes, an experience he hopes to share with viewers.
“Playing Jamal was such an incredible experience as it exposed me to a world I knew nothing about. One that, unfortunately, is a reality for so many young people,” said McGhie. “I felt a responsibility as an artist to be used to bring all of my self, everything I had, to hopefully be a voice for these kids that have been tuned out and overlooked for far too long.”
Julie Benz, an actress known for her roles on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dexter,” played the role of attorney and investor in the for-profit company. Although already an accomplished actor, the emotion was real on set, especially during the courtroom scenes. Benz said she recalls being the most-hated person in the courtroom and mustered all the strength she could not to cry on set because the subject matter was so real.
The movie not only entertains but illustrates the real issue with a for-profit foster care system. “It’s a system with unprepared caregivers and overworked caseworkers who are all working towards a profit and not for what’s best for the children. It’s a broken system and it needs to be changed,” said Benz. “This is one of those movies that people need to see,” she added.
At the close of the film, before the credits, the statistics regarding those in foster care are shown. Deratany said audiences usually sit in silence and watch them roll across the screen: there are over 400 thousand children in foster care in the United States. Only half will finish high school, and less than 3 percent will receive a college degree. More than 40 percent are homeless, in jail, or dead within three years of aging out of the foster care system.
However, with awareness of the issue, some of those in foster care are given much needed support to not only survive but thrive. I should know. I’m a product of the foster care system, too. Although I went on to graduate college, law school, and am now pending admission into the D.C., and NY bar, I did so having first bringing the above-mentioned statistics to life.
Videos are from the official site of the movie.