“Too many foster children have been unheard, unrepresented, uncared for. It’s time to make our nation’s foster kids a priority ... Speak up. Foster. Adopt. Their lives hang in the balance,” the familiar voice says in the animated short promoting the new movie, “Foster Boy.”
It’s the voice of retired NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, speaking about a new film for which he is both executive and presenting producer.
“Foster Boy” is based on the work of Chicago attorney Jay Paul Deratany, who for 20 years has been fighting on behalf of children abused or killed while under the care of private foster care firms contracted by state child welfare agencies, beginning with Illinois.
Starring Matthew Modine, Louis Gossett Jr. and Amy Brenneman, “Foster Boy” has been racking up awards at film festivals nationwide — 10 to date, including Best of the Fest and Best Narrative Feature at the International Black Film Festival; Best Feature Film at both the Durham Region International Film Festival and West Texas Film Festival; and Best Full-Length Narrative Feature as well as the Human Rights and Dignity Award at the Tryon Film Festival.
And the buzz is growing over the film O’Neal said he hopes to sell as a series to a streaming service like Netflix or Showtime.
“It’s a powerful film,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday afternoon before he would fly here for NBA All-Star Weekend — headlining a fundraiser Thursday night for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s civil rights organization, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
The film, based on true events, is about a foster boy who seeks justice after he is horrifically abused by an older boy with a history as a sexual predator. When placed in the foster home, that history was not disclosed by the for-profit foster care agency managing the case.
The abused boy is represented by an attorney based on Deratany in the film that turns a spotlight on tragic statistics for the nation’s 430,000 youths in foster care: only half graduate high school; 24 percent are homeless a year after aging out of the system; 60 percent are unemployed five years out; and only 3 percent graduate college.
It was in 2000 that Deratany, a personal injury lawyer, was introduced to the crisis of children removed from biological parents for abuse or neglect — only to be abused or killed in foster home placements by Department of Children & Family Services contractors, or after returned to parents without proper case management. Such cases were particularly rampant with for-profit contractors.
“I was mostly doing medical malpractice, when one day, a client came in, referred by another lawyer who didn’t know what to do with the case. It was a woman whose son had been raped and abused by a foster child she brought into the home,” said Deratany.
“After some investigating, I learned this young man had a history of severe mental illness. He was a predator and had a record of being a predator in other homes,” he said. “Afterward, I was so moved by how poorly children were being treated in foster care that I wrote a few articles. I started getting more of these cases and have devoted my work since then to children’s rights cases.”
In 2018, Deratany, according to his law firm, won Illinois’ largest jury award ever for social service agency negligence — $45 million — in Lavandis Hudson vs. Lutheran Social Services. The 2-year-old Hudson was killed by his mentally ill mother in 2011 after the nonprofit DCFS contractor returned the child.
So why did the four-time NBA champion O’Neal — who since retiring in 2011 has been alternately a music producer, DJ and currently a sports analyst on TNT’s acclaimed “Inside the NBA” show — decide to back this film?
“Watching it was an emotional and eye-opening experience for me. I wanted to know more at the end of the film,” said the 47-year-old, who played for six teams over a 19-year NBA career. O’Neal won three championships with the late Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, one with Miami Heat.
“I was shocked to learn about this cycle of abuse, neglect and poverty for these voiceless kids. I’ve known foster families whose experiences were positive, and the outcomes for the kids were good — many have gone on to find success and happiness. I had no idea these horrors existed,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal next will present the film at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles on Monday. He said he hopes that putting his support behind a national issue he cares about will spark conversation about much-needed reform in state foster care.
“Foster kids don’t vote, have no money, no lobbyists. They’ll never march, and you’ve never read an op-ed from a current foster kid. They need a voice,” O’Neal said. “When we show the film to foster kids, they stand up and cheer. They say the film has finally given them a voice. That’s why I’m part of it. I love these kids. We all should.”