Airs Jan. 10th at 10ET on MSNBC
“No Place for a Child” is a documentary that follows five children through the Indiana Child Welfare system for seven years.
Karen Grau wrote letters asking the Indiana Supreme Court to allow cameras in the courtroom to document what she says is a system in need of reform. Her efforts paid off. “No Place for a Child” is the third documentary MSNBC has produced with Grau on the workings of the child welfare system in the heartland of America.
Below, Karen Grau shares her experience producing the film.
Juvenile courts are a processing point for more than 800,000 children each year who are confirmed victims of abuse and neglect. With more than a half million children in foster care, 65,000 parents terminated of their parental rights each year and more than 2.4 million grandparents raising their grandchildren, many adults offer visceral opinions about how to fix America’s troubled families. But answers are hard to come by when trying to determine what’s in “a child’s best interest.” In the closed-door world of America’s juvenile courts, the public knows little about how laws and policies direct the futures of millions of at-risk kids.
In 1995, after leaving my job as a local television reporter, I assisted in a study of Indiana’s foster care system. I wasn’t working as a reporter at the time, but the project allowed me to observe juvenile courts and child welfare cases around the state of Indiana. Despite my years in journalism, I was floored by the first case I witnessed – a hearing on termination of parental rights. And I was hooked on the magnitude of these stories. Three children, all under the age of 10, sobbed as their mom readily let the judge relinquish her parental rights. She simply was not willing to give up the drugs or continue in counseling in order to get her children back. The hearing adjourned and, without ever saying goodbye to her children, she waltzed out of court. Her children stood by in shock. I went into the bathroom and cried.
And I’ll never forget the faces of those kids.
Nearly three years passed before I acted upon my professional instincts as a result of that experience. I knew full well that Indiana law strictly prohibited cameras inside any courtroom, let alone juvenile court. But I couldn’t let go the idea of producing documentary programming on what I had witnessed in these courtrooms. I contacted the counsel to the chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court and sought his advice. He said it would be nearly impossible to get permission for TV access to child welfare hearings, but I was welcome to make my case to the chief justice. And that’s exactly what I did.
My letter to the five justices of the Indiana Supreme Court argued that if the Court truly wanted to advocate for abused and neglected children, there was only one way to reach the public: show them the real workings of juvenile court. In a "be careful what you wish for" moment, my appeal worked. In December 1998, Chief Justice Randall Shepard and the justices of the Indiana Supreme Court approved my request. Now it was time for the real work to begin.
My experience of observing juvenile courts in the past enabled me to quickly identify juvenile judges whom I believed would be willing to participate in my documentary project. And sure enough, the first three judges I approached -- one rural judge and two urban judges -- agreed to my request to film inside their courtrooms. Our cameras began rolling in early 1999. It was in these three courts that I met DeLena, Chelsea, Conni, Joshua and Raymond. I had little idea at the time that I would continue to film them today.
I often say that working side-by-side with juvenile judges and child welfare officials is an education all its own, but it pales in comparison to what I learn from the children I follow. Their lives are filled with pain and desperation, yet they possess a will and determination unmatched by most adults. This is especially true in a case like DeLena’s.
DeLena was 17 years old when I met her in 2000 and already had been in 15 foster homes. She was 14 when she had her first child, but despite the odds was a role model in her community. Her foster mom at the time I met her was a professor at a local state university. She, DeLena and DeLena’s son seemed to be a picture-perfect blended family. But as I have learned over the past eight years covering this subject matter, there is no "perfect picture" for kids who spend a lifetime in the child welfare system. The closer a child comes to the age of 18 and aging out of a system that has provided at least a partial safety net, the more likely they are to falter. And that’s exactly what happened to DeLena and Conni and Chelsea too. Sadly, they are but three of hundreds of thousands of kids who struggle daily just to survive.
Admittedly, following kids like DeLena, Joshua, Conni and Chelsea can be both rewarding and wrenching. For me personally, it’s nearly impossible to immerse myself in the lives of these kids for years on end without also becoming intricately involved in their daily existence. I watch them find jobs, lose jobs, move often and still keep their sense of hope. Have I received late night phone calls asking for help with utility bills and groceries? You bet. To fully understand their experience with the child welfare system I also have to understand their time OUT of it. If I’m a sounding board or an occasional lifeline for a week’s worth of food, I’m glad it’s me they trust. Therefore, in addition to filming, I have become an official mentor to several of the kids I’ve met over the years. I’m often asked how I justify this as a working journalist. I don’t apologize for it and have a fairly straightforward answer: Because I give a damn, and I want to give back.
Child welfare is an ever-changing field of scientific research and public opinion. Vast policy shifts from “family preservation” to moving children into foster care can occur subtly, and they are almost always out of view. But that is what makes these stories worth telling, and that is what has kept us motivated to keep reporting from inside juvenile courtrooms.