It all started with a quippy little line just like the one said by Mark Wahlberg in the trailer for the movie “Instant Family.”
“I made that silly joke that Mark makes, where I said I felt like I’d be an old dad, and so why don’t we just adopt a 5-year-old?” said Sean Anders, the film’s writer and director, in an interview this week in downtown Seattle.
That one little off-handed observation about becoming a dad in his 40s led to a world he and his wife knew nothing about, and a level of dedication that developed gradually, but surely and firmly.
“From there, we got involved pretty quickly once the idea took hold,” said Anders. A joke led to discussing the option more, visiting the AdoptUSKids website and going to an orientation for potential foster parents.
What’s his advice for parents who want to learn a little more about foster care, but aren’t sure they want to go down that path?
“If you’re interested in it, you don’t have to make a decision,” said Anders. “You just go to an orientation. My wife and I decided not to decide.”
“It was too scary to decide before we went to an orientation.”
Next up were classes for months, including CPR training. “By the time we made our decision we made a much more informed decision,” said Anders. “And then by the time we made our decision, we really embraced it.”
His real-life experience with fostering (and later adopting) three children, then ages 18 months, 3 and 6, inspired the movie, which has as many funny moments as it has emotionally wrenching conflicts.
And tantrums galore, both in the movie and reality. “Oh, our daughter had horrific tantrums, all day long,” said Anders, almost wistfully now, looking back on the unique challenge of bringing home a 3-year-old as a new parent. (In the movie, it’s all about potato chips. Potato chips as breakfast, lunch and dinner, that is.)
Some of Anders’ previous films were the “Daddy’s Home” movies and “Horrible Bosses 2,” as well as “Hot Tub Time Machine,” giving him a firm foundation as a comedy director and screenwriter. Rose Byrne and Wahlberg star as the couple, along with Isabela Moner as the ambivalent, troubled teen big sister and Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz as her younger siblings, who are much quicker to adapt to their new living situation. Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro co-star as the social workers who train the childless couple in how to become, well, instant parents.
“I’m hoping that the main effect that it has is that it will change the narrative about foster care and the kids that are in care because right now when people think about kids in foster care, unintentionally it brings negative thoughts to mind, feelings of fear and trepidation and pity and that kind of thing,” said Anders.
In “Instant Family,” we see the couple go through many steps, including about eight weeks of training classes, before finally attending an “adoption fair” where the couple notices the teens, who are hanging on the fringes, largely ignored and unnoticed by most potential parents, who are instead interested in the younger kids.
This is an issue important to the heart of the movie, since there is a 20 percent chance that teens who leave impermanent foster homes at 18 will become homeless, according to the foster advocacy organization CASA, showing that caring adult intervention and guidance is even more crucial during the adolescent years.
Foster and adoption advocates across the U.S. are eager to see what effect the film might have on connecting families and foster children. Anders since the response he has gotten from foster families at screenings has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
Washington state had almost 8,800 children in out-of-home care in January 2017, according to Partners for Our Children, a collaboration between the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services and the University of Washington School of Social Work. In the United States, there are an estimated 400,000 children living in foster care.
“The need is there, the need is extreme right now in Washington state,” said Katie Biron, a licensed foster parent in Duvall. She and her husband have a family of two children adopted through the foster system and two biological kids. “There’s a real lack of foster parents. It can be a difficult system to navigate,” said Biron, who advocates strongly for open adoptions and building lasting ties to foster and adoptive children’s birth families.
“It’s so important in my opinion as a society to step up and put ourselves in a vulnerable position of working with people we don’t know, handling kids with trauma, working with a system that’s got its challenges, but it’s important that we as a society step up and say, I am willing to do all of this because I do have a great support system.”
Amara is a local organization that specializes in foster child placement and foster parent training. Adults can also just start to learn about being a foster parent before committing. Interested people can also contact check out the information offered at AdoptUSKids. In Washington, foster care is overseen by the Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families.
Another way to help the area’s many foster kids is through volunteering for CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates), a group that trains advocates for abused or neglected children to represent an individual child’s best interests. The volunteers speak for foster kids in court and offer an adult perspective independent of the foster system, birth families and foster families.
The training to be a foster parent through Amara includes an information meeting, followed by an application, a training session that lasts many weeks, a home study and licensing, similar to what Anders and his wife did as they decided on how they wanted to build a family.
And Anders is hopeful his comedy might nudge a few more interested adults into taking another look at the system.
“When you go on this journey with these characters, and you see these kids for who they are, they’re just kids,” said Anders. “They need love. They need parents. And they have a lot that they can bring into your family.”