Shaquille O’Neal on Why Foster Care Is the Great Untold Story

It’s no secret that I have suffered some losses lately. For better or worse, my pain and grief are public. But I understand the opportunity to face the pain, learn from it, and model a behavior. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But there are hundreds of thousands of kids across the U.S. — 30,000 just in Los Angeles County – who struggle, suffer, and grieve every day, too often alone, usually unnoticed, and without much public understanding and support. They are foster kids.

Life has challenges and, as a kid, I faced my fair share. But there was someone in my life who, along with my parents, was always there for me. His name is Michael Parris, whom I affectionally call “Uncle Mike.”

Mike was a police officer in my hometown of Newark, N.J.  He was a mentor and role model, and it is hard for me to imagine what would have become of me without him.

But many of the 440,000 kids in our nation’s foster care system are not well supported. Neglected and abused, they are separated from their siblings and shuffled from family to family. Some will eventually return to their birth family or find a loving, committed foster or adoptive family. But a lot of them aren’t so lucky.

Many foster kids struggle in school and suffer from low self-esteem and depression.  Fewer than 4 percent earn a college degree. Many enter adulthood without the skills, confidence and support they need to find their way in the world.

Fortunately, there are rays of hope. For example, First Star Academies, founded here in Los Angeles at UCLA, shows foster youth that they belong on a university campus and gives them the tools to get there, by hosting high school-age youth in residential programs on university campuses for four summers and providing additional support and opportunities year-round. The program is amazing. Just last year, Governor Gavin Newsom provided funding to establish a First Star Academy at CSU-Sacramento, the third such program in the state of California.

There is so much more we can do to help foster kids. But it all starts with shining a light on their lives. That’s why I am so proud to be both an executive and the presenting producer of “Foster Boy,” an inspiring new film that had its Los Angeles premiere on Monday at the Pan African Film Festival. Foster care is a particularly poignant issue in our community. Black kids enter foster care at a rate five times that of white kids across California and six times that of white kids in Los Angeles County.

Foster Boy” is a powerful courtroom drama. Based on true events, it tells the story of Jamal, a foster youth who seeks justice after suffering horrible abuse and degradation at the hands of an adolescent boy with a history as a sexual predator — a boy who is placed in his foster family by a for-profit placement agency that was aware of the boy’s history but never informed Jamal’s foster parents.

The circumstances shown in “Foster Boy” are all too real. In 2017, a U.S. Senate Committee found that children in for-profit-contracted homes were abused and neglected more often than those in nonprofit foster care, concluding: “Sometimes those charged with keeping children safe look the other way.”

We won’t look the other way. All of us on this project — screenwriter Jay Paul Deratany, director Youssef Delara, fellow producers Peter Samuelson, Anne-Marie Mackay, Andrew Sugerman, Mary Beth O’Connor, and Mike Parris, and our talented cast of actors including Matthew Modine, Lou Gossett Jr. and Shane Paul McGhie – are on a mission.  We believe that “Foster Boy” can and must draw people’s attention to the plight of foster kids and ignite a national conversation about what we can do to improve their lives.

It’s time to start making a difference for our foster kids. Speak up. Donate. Volunteer. Foster. Adopt. And most of all, care.

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