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What ‘Earth Mama’ Doesn’t Tell Us About Foster Care

Deseret News

August 14, 2023

There are plenty of movies that start in the middle of the story. But typically the director will eventually go back and tell you what happened at the beginning. This is not true of “Earth Mama,” a recently released film by first-time director Savanah Leaf.

The story is about a pregnant woman, Gia, whose two children are in the foster care system. It begins once her kids, who look to be around 6 or 7 years old, have already been in state custody for several months. She is trying to “work her case plan” in order to be reunified with them. 

We follow Gia as she tries to hold her life together. She is working at a photography studio in a mall, trying to pay her own bills as well as the child support she needs to pay the state while her kids are in foster care. Her cellphone is always about to die. Her car is on its last legs. She is trying to prepare for the new baby, buying a crib and some clothes, but she needs to get an advance from her boss. She has to submit to regular drug tests and attend classes on parenting and group therapy sessions where everyone talks about the trauma they’ve experienced that brought them there. She is only allowed one hour a week of supervised visitation with her children. 

What we never find out, though, is what brought Gia to this point. The drug tests suggest that she had a drug problem. She mentions that if the authorities ever found out what her sister did for a living she wouldn’t ever get her kids back. We don’t know anything about the father of her children or the father of her baby. This man — or these men — never make an appearance in the movie. 

Like many of the stories told in the media today, the reader hears the story from the mother’s point of view, but the agency (for privacy reasons) is not allowed to respond. And the children are never interviewed either. 

What is the effect of skipping over the story of how these kids came to be removed from their mother’s care? It is that our sympathies come to lie entirely with Gia.

With one exception — when she does use drugs while pregnant — the viewers could easily assume that this state action was a big mistake, another example of child protective services needlessly intervening in the lives of poor people. Indeed, Gia’s friend tells her that her whole life “they have tried to take our culture. They try to take our homes. Try to take our freedom. And you know they’ll try to take our babies, too.”

This narrative plays out throughout the film, which ends with a social worker trying to persuade Gia to give her baby up for adoption voluntarily before the baby is taken into foster care. It is the narrative that is popular today in academia and journalism and politics.

But it is a lot easier to buy into this narrative if you have no idea what preceded the children being removed from Gia’s care.

That is not to say there are no mistakes or that every child in foster care cannot be at home with his or her parents. But the events of this story, and many others, are told selectively.

In the movie, one young man talks about how he was taken into foster care as a boy and explains that he doesn’t blame his mother for what happened. This is hardly an uncommon reaction among former foster youth. Many of them truly believe that their parents could have cared for them. And they were desperate to return home to their families. But we also know that children are not simply taken from their parents because of poverty. The idea that neglect is just another word for poverty is belied by the research.

recent study of almost 300 case files in California, for instance, found that “nearly all investigations of physical neglect (99%) included concerns related to substance use, domestic violence, mental illness, co-reported abuse or an additional neglect allegation (i.e., abandonment).” Neglect is responsible for many more child maltreatment fatalities than abuse.

“Earth Mama,” which premiered at Sundance, has gotten rave reviews from critics, including at The New York Times, which notes, “By focusing instead on Gia’s existential reality — her habits, the pleasure she gets from her job, the awkwardness of her gait — Leaf humanizes her. It’s very moving, and adamantly political.” The political viewpoint is one which is shared by many, and it is easy to support because we will never know the full story.

About the Author

Naomi Schaefer Riley