Tough Love chronicles the separate journeys of Patrick Brown, a single, white father in Seattle, and Hasna "Hannah" Siddique, a newly married Bangladeshi-born mother of two in New York City, as they fight to make their families whole again after their children were taken from them due to neglect. Through intimate, vérité footage, we witness firsthand the complex bureaucracy of America's child welfare system and the powerful role that poverty and other challenges play in keeping parents and children apart.
It is conservatively estimated that more than 2 million children are in state-sponsored care worldwide. In the United States, more than 400,000 children were living without permanent families in 2013. In 2012, 78 percent of cases reported to child protective services agencies involved findings of neglect, not abuse. Although each state defines neglect differently, allegations often involve poverty, mental illness, addiction, domestic violence and/or children with significant developmental challenges. Among the thought-provoking questions Tough Love raises are these: Do parents charged with neglect deserve a second chance? Who decides? Is there more that can be done to address the factors that contribute to cases of neglect?
Tough Love does not attempt to answer these questions, take sides or set out to show failings in the child welfare system. It simply trains an unflinching eye on the ghosts of the foster care system--the individuals rarely, if ever, depicted in mainstream media--parents who love their children and are struggling to reclaim them. Tough Love is the first documentary to be granted yearlong access to film inside Seattle's Family Treatment Court (FTC). Never before has the public been privy to the roundtable discussions between social workers and lawyers in the court, and few are aware of the multiple bureaucracies parents must manage and the services that they and their children desperately need to improve their chances of reunification.
We first meet 40-something single dad Patrick Brown in Seattle's FTC, a court with innovative programs that help parents with histories of substance abuse reunite with their children. Patrick's 4-year-old daughter, Natalya, has been living with a loving Italian foster family since Patrick, fearing for her life, called Child Protective Services about the child's meth-addicted mother. After 15 months in the court program, Patrick, a journeyman landscaper, handyman and recovering meth addict himself, is now sober, holding down a steady job and inching closer to being reunited with Natalya. But he slips--gambling away his rent money and drinking a glass of wine after an emotional Fourth of July holiday without his daughter.
Patrick's team of social workers and advocates, along with Judge Julia Garratt, begin to question his recovery and ability to parent his child safely. As attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous meetings is added to his list of responsibilities, the judge considers terminating his parental rights. Patrick begins to wonder whether he "has what it takes to be a father," or whether Natalya would be better off being adopted by her foster family.
Meanwhile, across the country in New York City, seven-months pregnant Hannah Siddique and her husband, Philly, are preparing for the birth of their first child. Like any young couple, they seem happy and very much in love. But two years earlier, Hannah's two children from a relationship with an abusive ex-boyfriend were taken from her after the New York City Administration for Children's Services (ACS) learned that she had left her son and daughter with her mother for nights at a time. Was it poor judgment or neglect? Today, Hannah says that she's trying to move forward, but "my past is just haunting us."
Hannah admits that at the time her children were removed from her care, "I was clueless as to what it was to be a mother." But now she is determined to prove that she can be a responsible parent and that with Philly, she can create a safe and loving home for her children. Philly, a Dominican New Yorker with a sweet, upbeat nature, is with Hannah every step of the way. He works seven days a week in a food truck and at a tile factory, earning barely enough to make ends meet, and all he wants is to be a good husband, father and provider.
Hannah starts to attend weekly parent support group meetings at the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP) in East Harlem. Despite her excitement about having a baby, she is frustrated by the lack of movement on her two-year case with ACS, through which she is seeking to be reunited with her older children. Then, at a CWOP meeting, Hannah and Philly learn a devastating fact: the safety of their newborn child will also be under investigation because of the still-open case.
To make matters worse, the two also discover that living with Philly's mother, as they do now, is a liability that increases the chances that ACS will take their new baby. With no other options, they apply for a spot in a family homeless shelter. In the midst of all this, healthy baby Mia is born. After failing to qualify for the shelter, Hannah and Philly return to his mother's house with Mia and hope for the best.
In Seattle, we last left Patrick questioning whether he has what it takes to be a father. But on the heels of the judge's "tough love" approach, Patrick's FTC team jumps into action. It's clear they're rooting for him and have come to the conclusion that his self-sabotage is grounded in fear and anxiety. Together, with markers and whiteboards and just the right amount of levity, they map out a plan. This time, the scales just might tip in Patrick's favor.
Tough Love, a compassionate inside look at the child welfare system, shows the remarkable discretion and power that judges have in defining what makes a parent a parent--and a family a family. Put under the microscope of child protective services, which parents would pass the test? The film illustrates the disparity between various state systems and bears witness to the often-overlooked and unappreciated role that social workers, lawyers and parent advocates play as cases drag on for years.
"I hope Tough Love gives audiences a glimpse of the lives inside the child-welfare system, the lives of the families and workers who spend countless hours navigating this complex bureaucracy," says filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal. "At the end of the day, it is a system made of people. People who are faced with complex issues like housing, welfare, domestic violence and substance abuse. People who have to overcome unimaginable obstacles to have a family again.
"Too often, adoption is seen as the only option for children in foster care. Through Hannah, Philly and Patrick's stories, I hope to show audiences that these children have parents who love them and are willing to do whatever it takes to get them home."