Deborah Oppenheimer traces her documentary success to the death of her mother, Silva, in the early 1990s.
At the time, the Valley Stream native was working as a television producer for “The Drew Carey Show” and “The George Lopez Show” on the WB Network. When her mother died, however, Oppenheimer took a different path, deciding that she wanted to learn more about the Kindertransport, a British mission that saved 10,000 mostly Jewish children — including her mother — from the Nazis before World War II.
She worked with filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris to produce a documentary about the effort, and “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport” was released in 2000. It earned an Academy Award in 2001 for Best Documentary Feature, and was recently re-released on HBO to mark the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport rescue.
Around the time that “Into the Arms” was produced, Oppenheimer said she decided to “walk away” from her television producer job and to volunteer as a tutor and mentor at a public school in California, where she met a 6-year-old boy named Patrick. Patrick, she said, had displayed signs of leadership, and one day she asked a colleague about the boy’s home life. That’s when Oppenheimer, a South High School graduate who declined to give her age, found out that Patrick had been removed from his parents’ care and was living in an orphanage.
“I went home sobbing,” she recalled.
That was the first time she had met someone in the foster care system, and she soon realized that many Americans had probably not met anyone in the system, either. That was a decade ago, and her experience with Patrick inspired her to make another documentary, this time about the American foster care system, called “Foster,” which premiered on HBO on May 7.
Oppenheimer and Harris began working on the project in earnest in 2014. They spent two years researching foster care and hiring a crew, and another two years following foster kids, parents, social workers, lawyers and judges in the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, the largest child welfare system in the country.
“They were able to provide an extraordinary picture of the inner workings of DCFS,” Diane Weyermann, president of documentary film and television at Participant Media, which partnered with Oppenheimer to produce the film, said in an interview in Variety. “As far as I know, they’re the only team to go this deep into the system and follow not only the kids but also the case workers, the juvenile court proceedings [and] the mentors. It truly covers the gamut.”
The result is an almost two-hour-long film showcasing nearly every aspect of American foster care. “Foster” follows the Beavers family, comprising five children in the system; a 16-year-old who was placed on probation for starting a fight at his foster home; a couple whose baby was born with cocaine in her system; a teenager struggling to make it in college; and an adult who grew up in the system and wound up becoming a social worker. Oppenheimer described her film as “inspiring, hopeful, and at times, it’s painful.”
She also said that the stories in the film are not unique to L.A., and could happen anywhere. And they have. Reports from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services show that 134 children were admitted into Nassau County’s Foster Care system in 2017, 142 children were already in the system, and 173 children were discharged from the program. Of those in the system, the report states, the majority were African-American, over 11 years old and living in foster boarding homes within the county.
To help such children, Oppenheimer said, adults could become foster parents, mentors or tutors to them, or perhaps host a holiday drive to provide supplies to children in the system.
“There’s so much that people could do,” she said. “One consistent, caring adult can make all the difference.”
“Foster” is available on HBO Go or HBO on Demand.