The critically acclaimed film Tough Love by Asian American filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal airs tonight on PBS on the weekly showcase of independent films, POV.
Tough Love offers a rare intimate glimpse at the child welfare system, giving the viewer access to the lives of two parents fighting to get their children back.
You see the raw emotions of their triumphs and setbacks. You see their strengths. You see their weaknesses.
Neither parent is made out to be an angel. This is a realistic portrayal of the foster care system and how child custody cases are decided and the children impacted by those decisions.
“During screenings of my last film, Wo Ai Ni Mommy, audiences urged me to look more closely at our nation’s foster care and adoption system,” said Wang-Breal. “When I discovered that there were over 400,000 kids in foster care in the United States, my immediate reaction was why are so many Americans going abroad when there are so many children here who need a home and family. That was my first gut reaction to the statistic. Once I delved deeper into the subject matter, talking to social workers, foster parents and parents, only then did I realize that there are actually a lot of parents who are working hard to get their kids returned home and that this was a storyline rarely reported in today’s media landscape. I decided I wanted to document parents’ and families’ journey through the system to get a birds eye view of the child welfare and foster care systems.”
Tough Love is the story of Hannah Siddique and her husband, Philly. The Bangladeshi American is 7-months pregnant. Her two children from an abusive relationship with an ex-boyfriend were taken away from her because Siddique was accused of neglect. The New York City Administration for Children’s Services learned that she had left her son and daughter with her mother for nights at a time.
Tough Love is also the story of 40-something single dad Patrick Brown and his 4-year-old daughter, Natalya. He is a recovering drug addict who has entered the Seattle Family Treatment Court which offers programs to help parents with a history of substance abuse reunite with their children.
Wang-Breal was given amazing access to Brown’s case.
“Judge Clark, the Family Treatment Court (FTC) Judge granted me permission to film in her court room once she learned I was interested in making a film about the system. She told me, “I have nothing to hide”. But it did take an additional 5 months for her to run it up the ladder and get the necessary permits for filming from the courts administration team” said Wang-Breal.
“I think Patrick’s story comes off more holistic due to the fact that all of the court players from his CASA to the foster parents to his lawyer were all willing to be part of the filming. And, I think this kind of transparency lends the viewer to feel more sympathy toward Patrick and the difficult decisions his family treatment court team were making on his and his daughters’ behalf. Based on audience reactions, everyone feels like the Seattle system comes off much more progressive. And I believe this is due to the transparency that the public was given into the system.”
Access to Siddique’s case was much more restricted. Wang-Breal was not allowed to bring a video camera into the courtroom for Siddique’s case, nor did we get to meet the father of Siddique’s children.
“Yes, he declined to participate. At the beginning of filming, I contacted him to let him know that we were doing this project and to let him know that we wanted to include all sides of the story. I continued to talk to him and his mother for the next 3 months, but ultimately, they decided they did not want to be part of this story.”
Wang-Breal gave incredible power to the subjects of her film. At any time during the filming, the parents and all those involved in the cases could withdrawal from the project. In fact, several parents did. Three families pulled out from filming because they did not feel comfortable. Their stories were not included in Tough Love at all.
“Hannah and Patrick were the only parents who allowed me to stay for their entire journey through the system. Many parents, even those who ended up reunifying their families, were concerned about the anxiety they faced around getting their kids home. I told all families from the beginning of production when I ask them to sign a guest release form, that if they decide within three to six months’ time that the filming is just too much for them, then they can walk away. I think giving the parents that space to breathe, knowing I was not here to exploit them and make a sensational story, enabled them to trust me more.”
Wang-Breal has been working in film and television for about 15 years. Tough Love is her second feature length film. Her first Vo Ai Ni Mommy won numerous festival awards and was nominated for an Emmy after airing on POV in 2010.
“I hope, when the credits roll, that the viewer sees that not all kids are in foster care for severe physical abuse and neglect and that some of them have parents who are working hard to get them back but the institutional obstacles sometimes create more stress and problems than they should.”
Tough Love on POV airs on PBS in most cities at 10 pm tonight. Check your local listings for exact times and channels.