Under Review: ‘Ask Us Who We Are’


One young man, now a dad, says that on his last night at home he was in a nightmare. He would gulp for air between his father’s blows to his stomach. He was so mad by the time the beating was over he snarled at his dad, “When you go to sleep I’m going to come in and cut your head off.”

The next day at school he was called to the office and sent home. His mother informed him that she had just signed papers releasing him to foster care. He would no longer be a part of the family.

He reports that nothing, not the beatings nor cruel words, caused him the grief being rejected did. “It is the most devastating thing in the world to be rejected by your parents. Nothing is more painful.”

An ironic revelation is that foster kids are more hurt by rejection than scathing words and physical abuse. I always thought these rescued victims would be grateful for a new family or even police intervention. But it turns out that when the departure is not initiated by the victim, the suffering is perceived as greater than all the prior mistreatment.

In “Ask Us Who We Are” a series of foster kids, foster parents and two parents who released their children into foster care talk about their experiences. The editing by Scott Esmond is superb, working to rivet the viewer as well as propel the revelations and purpose of the film.

Bess O’Brien, producer and director, is dedicated to investigating the problems facing children, especially teenagers, and celebrating their strength and resilience. Reminiscent of her work in “Shout it Out,” O’Brien’s work involves young people at several levels and ends up a kind of therapy in itself.

The young people are the ones who lead the documentary forward, explaining what’s happened and what they make of it. Their candid, honest participation, retelling their histories and exposing their feelings, shows how much trust they have in O’Brien.

Individuals with foster care experience talk about why they were placed, how they felt, and what their experiences were like. One says, “My sisters and I would just hide. My father never ever apologized for anything he did.” Another reports, “I sometimes felt like I was the parent. I don’t think I always knew my mother was a junkie.” And another, “My mother was a prostitute and my father just wasn’t ever there. I kinda felt that I wasn’t important and what I needed wasn’t important.”

But upon being placed in a foster home, there was a similar ironic sentiment. “You don’t know the people. It was crushing – I had never had quite that sense of loss before.”

Parents who gave up their children candidly tell the viewers why and how they felt at the time. They also explain how careful the system is in reconnecting them with their children and what kind of help they are getting to improve their situation.

Foster parents explain the sometimes overwhelming trust issues their new children have.

This film is not a story or a re-enactment. It is a collage of testimonials. The important purpose is to understand what foster care is and how it can work best. At a time when painful budget choices have to be made, one foster care provider suggests instead of funding another road money could be better spent taking care of the kids who can’t be adequately taken care of by a parent.

At the outset, in black and white, are words from Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund: “For our children whose fears we could not allay and whose lives we did not protect.” This quote underscores our responsibility and calling to care for those who cannot care for themselves.

Film Credits

Produced and Directed: Bess O’Brien
Edited: Scott Esmond
Videography: Patrick Kennedy
Still Photography: Carley Stevens-Mclaughlin
Runtime: 1 hr 15 min
Kingdom County Productions
The Young People Who Told Their Stories:
Quentin, Erin, Toni, Asa, Matt, Chris, Jessica, Tiara, Michael, Rosa and David.
The Adults: Jeff, Nicole, Cindy, Candy, Jesse, Monique, Jeremy, Sarah, Lynda, Penny and Ann, Stu, Van, Mary, Roxane, Jessie, Robin, Sarah, Melissa, Lynn and Katherine.

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