The movie I am Sam is a feel good movie that depicts the struggles of parenting with mental illness and about fighting a rigid system. However, the movie falls short on the legal side of things. Here are some of the things that the director got wrong in the legal side of things.
To begin with the entire process takes a really long time for most parents. Most cases last a year or more before the court considers closing the case. The parents need to have completed their case plan and have moved to having the child in their custody again before the court and CWS considers stopping involvement. The movie shows the process with emphasis on the first part of the hearing process and a short part after Sam gets custody of his daughter. There are no scenes of him working a plan to get her back. The entire movie seemed to focus on the jurisdiction hearing and the fight to disprove that the allegation that he was unfit to parent due to his mental retardation were not grounds for adjudicating his daughter dependent.
His supervised visitations were fairly realistic. The visitation rooms were set up in a similar fashion as the ones in the CWS offices. The visitation was supervised by a case worker or county worker. In the movie there was a two sided glass window in which they observed his visit. There are toys and other fun kid related activities. The movie did capture the awkwardness of the constrained interactions well. However, one scene where he was an hour late to his visit, the worker allowed her to stay and wait for him. This is fairly incorrect as the worker in real life usually cancels after the first 15 minutes.
There were no CFT meetings. There were no meetings where he met with his case manager and discussed the things that needed to be changed to reunify. The case worker played a small role whereas in real life the case worker is the primary person who the parents will interact with. The case worker monitors the progress, arranges visits, and schedules meeting with providers and counseling groups.
Speaking of a lack of a case worker, there is no mentioning of him getting a case plan. He never receives a case plan that entails the things he must accomplish to reunify with his daughter. During the court conferences, the court focused on his mental disorder and whether that would make him capable of handling the duties of parenting. Even though he had private counsel, a evidentiary hearing or contested matter hearing would have been shorter than the movie showed.
The reality is that the case plan is the most important key factor to reunification. The court monitors and determines whether reunification can occur heavily based on the parent's compliance with their case plan. Should the parents fail to comply with their case plan, the court most likely will move to reunification.
The foster parents in this movie play too large a role. In real life the foster parents may interact with the parent but do not play a large role in reunification. If the foster parents wish to report any changes in the child's behaviour or signs of abuse then they may but their role is fairly insignificant compared to the case worker or the parents' attorneys. Also the foster parents do not have the right to negate termination of parental rights.
In the movie, he is shown to relinquish his rights. Should a parent in real life choose to relinquish their rights, then they moved for termination of parental rights or voluntary relinquishment. Should the parental rights be terminated, there is no going back. Termination of parental rights is athe most final act that can occur and cannot be reversed. The foster mom's change of mind may be well intentioned but in any court of law would have little effect in the reversal of a termination of parental rights hearing. The movie portrays it as if he gives up his rights but then the foster mom has a change of heart and his rights are completely restored and all proceeds smoothly. He would still need to complete a case plan, do his visitations, and home study should he contest terminating his parental rights. Just because of a change in mind, he does not automatically get his daughter back without doing the work.
I know the movie's goal was to reach the feelings of the viewer but it is important to know how the dependency process works in real life and not everything is a fairy tale. Now go watch My Cousin Vinny... that is a realistic movie with proper legal procedure.
Juvenile Dependency and