“Tough Love” begins by noting that last year 250,000 children were removed from their parents’ custody and put in foster care and that in 79 percent of these cases, parents were charged with neglect or abuse.
The film follows two parents, Patrick in Seattle (pictured above) and Hannah in New York, whose children are in the system. One of the film’s failings is not adequately explaining why the children were removed in the first place.
In Patrick’s case, he says his daughter Natalya was put into foster care after he called child protective services on the girl’s mother, who was using meth. Why couldn’t Patrick take care of Natalya? “I had to go to jail,” he says. For what? “Tough Love” never tells viewers.
In Hannah’s case, she left her children in the care of her mother for nights at a time, without saying when she’d be back. An anonymous call to CPS accusing Hannah of neglect led her two children to foster care. Now she’s pregnant with a third by her new husband. When that child arrives, new allegations of neglect regarding the infant spring from nowhere or at least “Tough Love” doesn’t explain them.
“Tough Love” should probably be required viewing in middle school and high school health classes. Showing the consequences of having a child – and the rough road some parents go down – might be useful to teens who feel invincible.
Shot over several years by producer/director Stephanie Wang-Breal, “Tough Love” does a public service by shining a light on the system and the work of those involved. It depicts state and non-profit agency workers who are trying to make a difference for children; it also shows those who fail, including Hannah’s lawyer who never returns a call. (Been there, experienced that: Still waiting on a former foster child’s lawyer to respond to re-mails and phone calls sent three years ago.)
In the end, “Tough Love” gives a happy ending for both parents and the film is mostly even-handed in its depiction of the specifics in these cases, showing (or at least telling viewers about) these parents at their best and worst. But the film is just a snapshot of the child welfare system and by no means tells the whole story of how children are damaged by neglect and how they are traumatized by going into foster care.
“Tough Love” never addresses with much depth the general rule for many states, which is the low-bar requirement that parents must be “minimally adequate” to regain custody of their children.
With the case of Patrick, in particular, “Tough Love” shows him taking a multi-year journey to sobriety and a newfound ability to parent his child. It’s a happy ending but “Tough Love” doesn’t make clear whether a rehabilitated parent is the rare exception or the general rule.