“Tough Love” Documentary Chronicling Families in Foster Care System Airs July 6, 2015 on PBS

Photo from "Tough Love," a documentary film by Stephanie Wang-Breal. Photo credit: eyeWANG Pictures
Photo from "Tough Love," a documentary film by Stephanie Wang-Breal. Photo credit: eyeWANG Pictures

In Tough Love, Emmy-nominated filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal (Wo Ai Ni Mommy) chronicles the lives of two families caught in the foster system: Patrick Brown, a single father and recovering addict in Seattle, and Hasna “Hannah” Siddique, a newlywed who immigrated to New York from Bangladesh as a toddler. After both are charged with neglecting their children, they fight to regain custody. The documentary highlights their heartbreak, their struggle, and the deep love in these families, and illuminates the vast differences in bureaucratic approaches that may influence rates of reunification.

In the King County’s Family Treatment Court, parents voluntarily enter the program and agree to chemical dependency treatment, increase court participation, and intense case management, with review hearings initially every other week, between 12 months to two years.

“I am a strong advocate for taking the lesson of the drug court and spreading it to the rest of the dependency [child welfare] cases,” said Judge Patricia Clark. “What’s happening are best practices. That’s how we should treat all families coming into the system. It’s expensive, but less expensive in the long run.”

Tough Love will have its national broadcast premiere on Monday, July 6, 2015 at 10 pm (check local listings) on PBS’s POV series. Tough Love is co-presented by CAAM. The film will stream on POV’s website from July 7-August 6, 2015.

Below, Wang-Breal talks about the documentary and about her work.

—Vanessa Hua

Stephanie Wang-Breal

Stephanie Wang-Breal

Your debut film, Wo Ai Ni Mommy, was about a Chinese orphan adopted by a Jewish family. This documentary focuses on the families with children in foster care. Why have you been interested in exploring different permutations of family? How has having two children of your own shaped your work?
I didn’t set out to make films about family, but that has become my specialty. We all come from a family, but all of our families are not created equally. All of our families do not function the same. What are parenting skills and where do you get them?

Patrick and Hannah were so brave to let me to document their parenting. That first month when you bring a child into the world is intense. When you don’t have a support system, when you don’t have a childhood experience to guide you into this, it’s really difficult.

My son and Patrick’s daughter are the same age. I could talk to Patrick about what she’s into, bring gifts that my son was into, and talk to him about the challenges of parenting. There’s only so much you can do. Sometimes you win, sometimes they win. It’s a constant struggle.

At the beginning, I filmed in Seattle every other week. I was pregnant with my second child. I went up to eight months, then had a field producer cover until after I gave birth. With my baby, when she was four weeks old, we attended Patrick’s graduation ceremony.

It was fascinating to see how the child welfare system operated, depending on the state. In Seattle, the judge and a team of caseworkers in the drug court seemed deeply concerned about Patrick and his well-being, even as they administered “tough love.” In New York, the system seemed much more adversarial and Kafkaesque. In illuminating those differences, were you suggesting more states consider an approach like Seattle’s?
You don’t know how many times during production where I said, “I wish I could write a screenplay. I would have so much more control over what’s happening.” New York, by not participating in the film, made [the system] look worse. It drove me crazy in the edit, about how to represent them in an unbiased way yet show what was happening at the same time.

The viewer feels Seattle is so much more progressive. The players, the system, don’t have anything to hide. Whenever people are transparent, there’s a much more honest discussion.

Patrick’s graduation from Family Treatment Court in Seattle, Washington. Tough Love, a documentary film by Stephanie Wang-Breal, airs on PBS July 6, 2015. Photo credit: eyeWANG Pictures

Patrick’s graduation from Family Treatment Court in Seattle, Washington with Judge Patricia Clark behind them. Tough Love, a documentary film by Stephanie Wang-Breal, airs on PBS July 6, 2015. Photo credit: eyeWANG Pictures

Why did your subjects agree to participate?
Parents told me if it doesn’t turn out [and aren’t reunited] then at least my child knows I did my best. Because otherwise all these other stories are told about them, all these narratives exist around who their parents were.

I was struck by the diversity of your characters. Hannah is a Bengali immigrant who grew up in Staten Island. Her husband, Philly, is Dominican. Patrick is a white maintenance man in recovery. His daughter lived with a foster family of Italian immigrants. How did your own experiences as a Chinese American play a role when you were filming?

The majority of families in the foster system are Black and Latino. In the Pacific Northwest, there are rural families caught up in methamphetamine addiction. I was hoping to cast diverse families and it ended up that way. It was also a story about fathers, which I wasn’t expecting. Here are two dads who do everything to stand up for their families. Who knew?

With Hannah, it helped that I was an Asian woman, with a crew of women. She thought it was so cool that I was doing this. And my last film helped, a film about transracial adoption and that all families are not the same, and how hard it can be, mixing it up.

What are you working on now?
My producing partner and I are working on a new project about victims of human trafficking. We were just granted access to film in a courtroom in Queens. Seventy to eighty percent of the women in domestic trafficking are from the foster care system.

I use my films as calling cards. Tough Love shows all sides of the story. It shows the integrity of my work and that I give my characters. It helps people trust me. We’re just started production and are looking for funding. If anyone wants to fund or participate in the project, to help us to continue to bring these stories into the public dialogue, go to the website.

Vanessa Hua is a former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing and recipient of the James D. Phelan Award for Fiction whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Guernica, San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. Her debut short story collection will be published next year by Willow Books. She blogs about three generations living under one roof at threeunderone.blogspot.com.