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Knowing Risa

Vanessa Roth
May 2005

It was early on a Saturday morning. My husband, my kids, and I were in the car heading to a four-year-old's birthday party in Bel Air. The traffic was terrible, and helicopters hovered overhead. Ronald Regan had died the night before in this neighborhood. My cell phone rang. It had been ringing all morning, and I had ignored it, thinking it was a work call that could wait until Monday. But, this time my six-year-old grabbed the phone and answered it, then quickly handed it to me saying, "It's for you and it's a lady that sounds upset."

The caller was Dolores Ruiz, the former foster mother of a young woman named Risa, who was the subject of a documentary that I'd finished filming nine months before. I had called Dolores the day before to see if she could help me track down Risa, who was scheduled to speak later that week at a community outreach event for legislators in New Mexico about the struggles and challenges of aging out of the foster care system -- the theme of the film. Risa, now 20 years old, had aged out of the system at 18 and moved out of Dolores' house to attend University of California at Santa Barbara on a full scholarship.

I met Risa in the spring of 2002 when she was still living at Dolores's house. A senior in high school at the time, she was just months away from aging out of the foster care system she had been part of since she was nine years old. When we met, she was working at Carl's Jr., a fast food restaurant where she earned money she was saving for college. During this first meeting, Risa bounded over to me at the booth where I sat. Her bright eyes and energy exuded ambition and determination. A firecracker standing at five feet tall, Risa told me about her upcoming prom and graduation, her plans for summer and college, and her lifetime dream of becoming a psychologist. She also told me she was one of 10 children living in desperate poverty in East LA, neglected and sexually abused by a stepfather until the age of nine, then put into a series of foster care placements away from her neighborhood and siblings. She told me that the majority of her brothers and sisters had dropped out of school and lived in foster care, jail, or on the streets. Risa, on the other hand, was adamant that her siblings' and mother's fate would not be her own. She somehow managed to cope and even thrive. She was at the top of her graduating class in high school, worked as a volunteer for Leo Key Club, tutored middle school kids, worked full time at Carl's Jr., had many friends, and received thousands of dollars in college scholarships. She was a driven achiever, determined to make a difference in her life and to realize her dreams of making a difference in the lives of others.

She had a faith in herself and her future that was inspiring and contagious. And, because of this self-assurance, she was the foster care system's golden girl, the often-cited example of triumph over adversity. And, even with my own social work background of working with kids in a broken system and knowing all the emotional and logistical hardships that young people coming out of the foster care system face, no matter how resourceful or positive they are, I saw something truly unique in Risa. I believed or convinced myself, like so many people in Risa's life, that this was a girl that would make it. She would be the one to beat the odds.

The next week we began what would lead to over a year of documenting Risa's life as she made her transition from living in a foster home to living on her own. It also began a friendship between Risa and me that would affect me long after we completed filming.

Getting permission from someone to bring a camera into his or her life over and over again for months or years during a difficult period of their life is a challenge. Perhaps now with reality TV, it's become some kind of twisted commonplace event. Everyone it seems wants "15 minutes of fame" broadcast to television audiences everywhere. But reality shows exist purely for entertainment -- for the exhibitionist and the voyeur in all of us. Getting access to someone's life for a documentary that is being made to explore a social issue by chronicling personal struggles is a different challenge. It requires a very special relationship between the filmmaker and the subject. True "access" requires that the subject of the film will continuously share his or her experiences honestly, no matter how difficult life becomes in the process of filming. Over and over again, the subject must trust that the filmmaker has been truthful about the film's intentions and must accept not only the presence of the camera during vulnerable moments, but also that those moments may be seen by millions of viewers. As a filmmaker, making a film like AGING OUT where the subjects were young adults who had very few resources was especially difficult. It required me to reevaluate my personal and professional ethics and to balance my responsibilities to both the film and the subjects each step of the way.

Many documentary filmmakers passionately believe that their role in a subject's life is to be an inconspicuous observer no matter how difficult their subject's life becomes. The objective is to accurately document events that would occur anyway had not a camera been present. Often the filmmaker chronicles the hardships of his or her subjects in order to advocate for social change or reform. The struggles of the film's subjects serve a "greater good" -- a call to action. When a filmmaker is able to capture moments of unvarnished raw truth, they can become pure gold for the sake of the film and the sake of the "cause".

But, these candid moments and disclosures may not help the subject of the film at all. And, this is where my quandary as a filmmaker of social issue films comes into play. I had not become a documentary filmmaker with a purely "observational" intent. Instead, I became a documentary filmmaker after working in the social work field where I saw first hand the incredible damage done to vulnerable children and families. Their world was one in which important decisions about their lives often were made by others. So, I began making films with the goal of empowering marginalized people. I wanted to give them a voice, to help them believe that they can shape their own destiny, to make them feel part of the process of promoting change. I couldn't limit myself to being a dispassionate observer. And this is where balancing my role as a filmmaker, social worker, and advocate got tricky with Risa.

We made arrangements to film with her a few days every month over the course of a year, depending on what was going on in her life on any given day. At the beginning of our production we talked on the phone once a week. In our calls, Risa would let me know how her week was going and what kind of plans she had for the upcoming week. Because our goal for the film was to understand the process of aging out by chronicling the experiences of the young people we followed, Risa and I would also regularly talk about how she was feeling about her upcoming transition out of her foster mother's house. We discussed the services she was getting from her foster care agency, her relationship with her biological family, and her hopes and dreams for the future.

I quickly got to know things about Risa's life that she had never shared with her foster mother or her foster care agency out of fear of being kicked out of the system. She was a "system kid" who knew the rules and knew how to get the services she needed. She knew that the more balanced, ambitious, and successful she appeared, the more services she would receive. She never told her case workers or her foster mother that she had an ongoing relationship with most of her siblings and that she experimented with drugs long before she went to college. Some of these details she was willing to share on camera and some she wasn't. She began to see me, and by extension the camera, as a confident -- someone who was interested in her life without working for a system, and for Risa, this relationship was unique. She let her guard down with me and told me about her fears and perceived personal weaknesses. She asked me only that I be there to talk to her and to listen. And though she always had the knowledge that my reason for being in her life was to make a film about her, what become more important seemed to be the simple fact that I was interested in knowing about her world as she saw it. Her foster mother, Dolores didn't like our filming. She felt it was disruptive to the other girls in the house and thought that it was overwhelming Risa. But Risa was adamant that she wanted us there -- that she wanted to "tell her story." In retrospect, I think Risa, more than anything, longed for a mentor and a friend -- someone with whom she could let down her guard, to make mistakes and to still know she was loved and supported.

After six months of filming with Risa, she officially emancipated from the foster care system and left Los Angeles to attend college. She had been accepted to the University of California at Santa Barbara with thousands of dollars in grant money from foster care organizations. Moving in was exciting. She felt that she had achieved her greatest dream -- to graduate high school and go to college. But even on the first day of moving into her dorm, she was faced with the disparity between her life and the lives of the other freshmen moving in to the dorms. Her roommate was escorted to school by her parents and three sisters. Risa had her foster mother and our camera crew with her, but we were there to film, not unpack. But as her roommate's family built her roommate's bed, unpacked her clothes, and arranged her family pictures, Risa and Dolores put on their best game face. Risa repeatedly asked if we could help a little bit. Instead of helping Risa get settled, as we felt this would take away from the reality of the moment, we suggested she ask her roommate's family to help her and we solicited help from other kids on her floor. Risa was happy, and when we finished filming that day, she called me on my cell as I drove home to tell me that she was proud about where she was and that she couldn't wait to tell me about her first week of school.

We continued talking once a week by phone, and after three weeks into school, Risa told me that she was feeling a little lost. She had dreamed of getting to college but didn't know how to succeed once she was there. Drugs were a frequent temptation at parties, and her classes were more difficult than she had imagined. She also began to feel self-conscious about the camera coming to school, because she was trying to fit in, not stick out. So, we agreed that our filming would include her friends and classes so that she didn't feel singled out. On long weekends many of her friends would go home to their families. Since Risa had aged out of the foster care system, Dolores was officially no longer her foster mother, and the idea of returning to Dolores's home seemed like going backwards instead of moving forward with her independence. So, on long weekends Risa began to spend more time with her siblings in Los Angeles. And, each time she was away going back to school became more and more confusing.

One night she called me to tell me about a Chicano studies class she was taking. She said that it had inspired her to write a book about her life -- about her childhood and family. She shared some of what she wrote on camera, but much of it felt too raw for her, and she only wanted to share it privately with me over the phone. Her writing was honest and heartfelt. She wrote about pain and fear with great detail, two traits she was very afraid to show on-camera. Her writing moved her to want to know more about her mother and more about the events that took place in her family when she was little. For Mother's Day weekend she planned on seeing her mother and asking her about her childhood. I asked if she wanted us to film her with her family. She said no, and we respected that this was a moment she needed to herself.

After her visit with her mother, Risa called me. She said she was lost. She was crying. I asked her where she was, and she said she was somewhere in Los Angeles but didn't know where. She said something happened at her mother's house that scared her and so she left and was waiting for a bus to take her to Dolores's house. I told her to call me back if the bus didn't come. An hour later she called me from Dolores's house. Risa didn't sound like herself. She sounded confused and faint, like a muted version of herself. She wouldn't talk about her weekend at home. She said she just wanted to go back to school. The next morning Dolores called me and said that Risa had taken a train back to school that morning at 7:00 AM and that she had never gone to sleep that night. Dolores wondered if she was under the influence of drugs.

Risa called me that morning too. She was even more confused than she had been the previous night. She was telling me that she was being followed, that she was scared, and then she just started to cry. Her voice became like that of a child, and she asked me if I could help her. I asked her what I could do, and she told me she didn't know -- that she just didn't know what to do. She called me every 10 minutes that day, just crying but telling me nothing.

During one of her calls, I asked to talk to her roommate. Her roommate was feeling scared about Risa's behavior. She said Risa claimed she had done no drugs over the weekend, but other than that, she just cried and screamed as if she was reliving some kind of trauma. I urged her roommate to get some help from the school. She called an ambulance. That night Risa was taken to the psych ward a local hospital in Santa Barbara.

The next morning I called Roger Weisberg, the producer/director of the film and told him of the events of the past day. He was filming the other stories in New York and had been aware that Risa was planning to visit her mom over the weekend and was eager to hear how it went. I told him about Risa's breakdown, and he thought it was important to film this turn of events. After all, this was one of those real moments of struggle, and the reason for making the film was to show the accomplishments as well as the set-backs of every young person aging out, even if they appear to be as successful as Risa. But, I was torn. The Risa that was in the hospital was not the Risa that consented to being part of the film. This was a Risa with no judgment at that moment about where she was or what was happening to her. In addition, I had no idea what she had experienced over the weekend or what was happening inside her head. With the trust we had built over the past year, I felt it would be wrong to try to gain access to the hospital to film this moment. When things became clearer -- then we could film again, but not now. Roger shared my concern about Risa's wellbeing, but also recognized the importance of honestly documenting this difficult chapter in Risa's story. He agreed that we could defer our filming until Risa's condition improved and respected my relationship with Risa and my worries about Risa's impaired judgment.

So, we didn't film her inside the hospital. But when the doctors asked Risa if she wanted visitors in the hospital, she asked for her foster mother, Dolores, and me. Dolores called me and asked if we could drive together. She seemed to need some support as well. Dolores and I spent two days with Risa at the hospital, though Risa never said a word. She only cried and looked at us. Her eyes that once showed such determination and passion were now dull and distant. Her spirit was gone.

Two weeks later Risa was talking again. Her affect was still flat and she still could not explain what had happened to her. When asked if she still wanted to participate in the film, she still said yes. "I told you Vanessa, I want to tell my story." Okay. So, we filmed her the day she left the hospital and the day she moved out of her dorm room. She would not be returning to school that semester.

With nowhere else to go, Risa he went back to Dolores's house. By this point, a year had passed since we started filming with Risa, but we didn't want her story to end on such a sad note. So, I kept in touch with Dolores as Risa began to recover while living in Dolores' house. Risa called to talk about how dead she felt inside, how confused she was about what had happened to her, and how sad she felt that her life had become a failure. She felt ashamed of herself, but she wanted me to film. So, we continued filming -- sometimes.

After a few more months Risa enrolled in a community college and found a job at a nearby supermarket. She was starting to feel more like herself, and her spirit seemed to coming back a little at a time. The days we filmed actually seemed to give her something to look forward to. They reminded her that we were still interested in her -- still wanted to know what it was like to be her. And once she was back on her feet, it then seemed like a good time to wrap up our production, and Risa felt that she too was ready for filming to be over. She felt that she had told her story.

Although filming was done, both Risa's and Dolores's need for support seemed to increase. They both called me weekly, sometimes together and sometimes separately. It was important for both of them to know that they could always count on me to listen to them. So, I gladly gave them my ear. I had grown to care about them both so much that it would be unnatural for me to cut off ties just because the filming was complete.

Risa's next year was difficult for her. She moved out of Dolores' house and into an independent living facility. She continued using drugs and was kicked out of her independent living facility. She then bounced around from her sister's house, to Dolores's house, to the streets. And throughout this difficult year, she still called me often to talk about her dreams and fears. She also wanted to be a part of any community outreach being planned in connection with the documentary. She wanted to talk to audiences about the kids who appear successful, but still need support. She wanted to tell people that she had plans, but didn't know how to fulfill them on her own. She wanted to tell people that she couldn't do it on her own, especially when things got rough.

So, on June 5, 2004, when the phone rang in my car, I knew it might be Dolores. I thought she'd tell me that Risa came to her house, begging to stay on her floor for a night, and that Dolores didn't know what to do. But instead, when my 6-year-old handed me the phone Dolores said,

"They shot her." "She's dead." "They killed her."

In an instant, Risa had become a statistic. Her murder on the streets of L.A. was not mentioned in a single newspaper. She was not even given a name in the police report. The detective on the case called me after speaking with Dolores, who was unable to say more than, "They killed her." He said that my phone number and Risa's sister's number were the only contacts found in Risa's possession. They found Dolores through a piece of mail in Risa's car. There was no one else even for the girl who had been the foster care system's golden girl, who had been showered with praise and scholarships, and who had received every conceivable service offered by the system. When it came time for someone to claim her body at the coroner's office and to plan a funeral for Risa, no one was there but her sister, the one whom the system had shunned because she had run away from her foster home. The one who clearly needed support her whole life and never got it was left to take care of the girl who, in theory, had it all.

And, there was me. The detective said that Risa's sister had asked him to contact me because she told him, "Vanessa knows Risa best -- she'll know who to invite to her funeral."

Suddenly, I was slammed with the truth of Risa's life. I was perhaps the most important source of support in her life since she emancipated from the foster care system. But, I had not entered into her life selflessly, but with an agenda -- to make a film, to tell a story about the struggles kids face when they age out of foster care. And in the end, the film shows those struggles -- with family, education, employment, and housing. And maybe because of the existence of the film, because Risa told her story, some of these needs will be addressed for the tens of thousands of young people aging out of the foster care system each year. But, what Risa needed most in her life was true support -- guidance and encouragement from one human to another. And, I guess, however inadequately, she found that in me for a brief time in her life. But what about the thousands and thousands of Risa's who aren't the subject of a documentary film? How can they ever escape just being a statistic?

It's been almost a year now since Risa was murdered. And, Dolores still calls me every week just to connect in some way. I've made two other films since we completed our production with Risa, but not a day goes by that I don't think of her, and everything she taught me about being human.

Statement by Roger Weisberg