Why a Lawyer Wrote a Movie

Jay Paul Deratany, a working attorney who wrote and produced the new film Foster Boy, on his duty to share the stories of foster youth.

If you had told me years ago that I would write and produce a film that highlights the dark underbelly of the legal system and the fight that our nation’s most at-risk kids have to endure to get justice, I’m not sure what I would’ve thought. I’m a personal injury attorney in downtown Chicago and I have seen many eventful, impactful legal battles play out. But when I started working on foster youth cases, I began a journey that would culminate in me getting my MFA to write and produce a feature film about the epidemic of abuse in the foster care system.

It’s not a typical path for a lawyer to take, and it certainly came with challenges – my program was a hybrid of in-person residency events and online classes, so there were many times I would come home after a day of trial work to do homework, and even an instance where I finished a trial in New York and flew straight to Palm Springs to attend an in-person seminar. But the work I was doing in the courtroom often inspired me even more for my MFA work, and it paid off when I obtained my MFA as the class valedictorian – and now the project I’ve worked so hard on is ready to be shared with the world. Now Foster Boy is out in theaters and on demand, and I’ve been reflecting on the process that led to its creation – and my hopes that this film will turn its audiences into champions and activists for these kids.

Matthew Modine as lawyer Michael Trainer in Foster Boy.

When I began working on foster-care legal issues, I was disturbed to my core to see how widespread horrifying abuse in the system is. The cases that I took on shattered my assumptions and profoundly moved me. Abused youth who come forward do so out of courage, not because of any fleeting desire for self-gain. No abused kid would sign themselves up to have the most painful moments of their lives publicly dissected just for a quick cash grab, and I wanted to empathetically demonstrate that point to get people to set aside their own assumptions why kids come forward. That’s why in the film, the hardened lawyer Michael Trainer (played by Matthew Modine) begins to believe that a pro-bono client he begrudgingly is forced to represent – a young former foster kid named Jamal (potently brought to life by Shane Paul McGhie) – may really be telling the truth about the extent of his abuse after refusing an initial settlement offer. If he’s not in it for the payday, then is it possible that he is being honest about the intentional negligence that led to his trauma? And what does it say about the power of the system when we’re prone to questioning children’s truthfulness in the first place? These thoughts haunt Michael Trainer in Foster Boy, and it’s a parallel of my own growth into a foster-care reform advocate.

Lawyers are used to stress, frustration, and even outrage about the cases that they work on – but taking on foster-care cases took all that to an entirely different level. By the time many of these cases landed on my desk, I was fighting for justice for a child who had already been irreparably traumatized or, in some cases, even killed. I felt helpless and horrified, like I was always one step behind preventing the system from causing more harm. These cases kept me awake at night. And they would probably keep other people awake at night, too, if they just knew about them.

Shane Paul McGhie as Jamal Randolph in Foster Boy.

The kind of sweeping misconduct and mismanagement in the foster care system – a broken system being actively reaped for monetary gain by for profit companies with little regard for safety – seems so outrageous that it seems better suited for fiction. The more involved I got, the more monumental pain and systemic corruption I saw up close, ranging from widespread negligence, denial of treatment, and the outright active enabling of violence and misconduct against kids. It deeply troubled me to know that so many children were being subjected to abhorrent physical, emotional and sexual abuse; nearly one in four foster children suffers from post-traumatic stress-disorder – a rate higher than some groups of veterans returning from Iraq.

From social workers questioning an abused child in the presence of her abusers and catalyzing a punishment from them that led to the child’s death, to foster agencies knowingly endangering families by hiding abuse histories, I’ve seen it all. One of the plot points in Foster Boy is inspired by a case I worked on where a child with a documented history of perpetrating sexual abuse was placed, without warning, into a home with other children. After seeing the agony and bravery of foster kids and activists fighting for justice, I felt that it was my duty to share these stories which had grown to haunt me outside of the courtroom. People need to understand that while Foster Boy dramatized events, the script is based on the very real terror that many foster youth confront and grapple with.

Screenwriter Jay Paul Deratny (left) talking with director Youssef Delara on the set of Foster Boy.

Children who do come forward may feel pressured to settle for less than the damages they truly deserve, because of fear of shaming, character assassination, and retraumatization. Opposing counsel lawyers often said things like, “Your client doesn’t want to relive the trauma and face the embarrassment of being sexually or physically abused,” in front of a jury, an allusion to the harshness of the system. When creating Foster Boy, I thought it was important to convey just how difficult it is to stand up against the foster-care system in legal cases logistically, but also the raw, emotional and potentially volatile way that abuse survivors can react while getting triggered on the witness stand or during other proceedings. Coming forward about abuse and trying to get justice in a world that is not trauma-informed or at all sympathetic is not a simple task, particularly for youth of color. This is especially true for Black children, who are disproportionately represented in the system and subject to a myriad of stereotypes, stigmas and racist microaggressions that make justice even harder to attain.

The lack of oversight and direct negligence of the foster care industry creates a maddening cycle of abuse. Studies show us that 28 percent of foster youth are abused while in the system, but that number is undoubtedly miscounted on the low end. Foster children are often gaslit and conditioned to not report their abuse. That isn’t even considering how many foster youth enter the system directly because of an explicit incident of abuse at home.

Shane Paul McGhie and Matthew Modine in Foster Boy

Children cycle through the system – in as many as 60 percent of states, foster youth go through more than two placements – while frequently being unable to speak up or get crucial access to psychological treatment. Traumatized children who are exposed to constant instability and not given any assistance can fall into a devastating traumatic phenomenon of re-enacting their abuse onto other kids – something I saw happen in the real-life case that inspired a plot point in Foster Boy. It’s a resounding moral and legal failure that the foster-care system isn’t preventing adults from abusing these vulnerable children in the first place, but it’s outright mind-boggling that youth who have a documented history of abusing other kids are still getting placed in other homes and around other children. It really is that shamefully bad. It really is that egregious. And it really is happening to the 440,000 children in foster care in the United States right at this instant.

The system is so broken that cases like the one in the film are not outliers. The character of Jamal may be fictional, but the pain that he endures is real for far too many foster youth. Telling this story has been a personal mission for me. And I hope that after watching Foster Boy, it’ll be a personal mission for many of the people who see the film, as well. There are so many things that need to be fixed about the foster-care system. But we must start by reckoning with its failures – and believing, supporting and advocating for both the kids who come forward and the ones that are forced to suffer in silence. For now, I myself continue to work on foster-care cases and have been in courtrooms around the country. I will keep fighting for justice for these kids and sharing their stories so others do too.

Featured image shows Jay Paul Deratny on the set of Foster Boy.

Jay Paul Deratany is the writer and producer of Foster Boy, a real-life legal drama starring Academy Award Winner® Louis Gossett Jr., Matthew Modine, Shane Paul McGhie, Julie Benz and Amy Brenneman, and executive produced by Shaquille O’Neal. The film, out now on demand, spotlights some of the horrific abuse and institutional coverups that plague the foster care system, moral and legal issues that Deratany has fought against in the courtroom. Deratany is an accomplished lawyer, human rights activist, and foster-youth advocate who uses his intense experiences in the legal system to cultivate his projects as a playwright and a screenwriter. He has spent his entire career pursuing justice for the vulnerable and creating change in our society; his firm won a historic $45,000,000 verdict in a foster care wrongful death case as well as the then-largest jury verdict in Lake County history, $23,000,000, in a birth injury case. Deratany obtained his MFA from the University of California Riverside. He has written several plays, including Haram Iran, which was nominated for a GLAAD award for best theatrical play of 2011, and the screenplay Saugatuck Cures. He resides in Chicago with his husband, Curt Smith.