An actress known for turns in Chronicle, True Blood and True Detective, Ashley Grace (née Hinshaw) appeared at United Talent Agency last night for a screening of her first directorial outing, a socially conscious dramatic short entitled Hunter Gatherer.
Shot in Grace’s native Indiana last fall when the director was seven-and-a-half months pregnant, the short follows Rose (Grace), who goes to reconcile with her drug-addicted brother, instead finding in his home the nephew she never knew existed. Living in squalor, the child has been left home alone in a space with crawling insects and signs of intravenous drug use on display.
Someone who believes in filmmaking as an artistic vehicle for asking critical questions, Grace was inspired to make the film by events in her personal life, hoping to shine a light on the epidemic of child abuse across the country and the world. “This project for me is extremely personal because almost 10 years ago now, I discovered a child in my life who needed help getting out of an abusive household, a neglectful household,” Grace explained before a packed audience in the agency’s screening room. “Unfortunately, nine and a half years later, I have still been unable to get that kid out, but I’m still trying.”
Feeling powerless in this personal situation, Grace looked to filmmaking as a means to raise the question of how we, as a society, can best help children who find themselves in abusive situations.
Joining the writer/director for a panel at UTA following a screening of the film, in conversation about the issues at hand, were several Los Angeles children’s rights advocates—Wende Nichols-Julien, CEO of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Los Angeles, Neil Zanville (of the Department of Children and Family Services’ office of Public Affairs), and Otho Day (retired after 35 years working with the DCFS).
Starting off, Grace’s panelists praised the realism and the mission behind her film. “The story was almost like a real case. I’ve been into homes like this, where you go into the bathroom and there’s no toilet,” Day said. “That’s in L.A. County. That’s real. So even though it’s a movie, that could be any social worker going out tonight to see this.”
For Zanville, Grace’s film brought attention to a “vitally important topic,” which was only made more approachable when depicted through a fictional lens. “The public does not understand child welfare, how it works. It’s a very complicated subject, and we need the public’s help,” the social worker said. “This film very effectively reminds us of what my department can’t do by itself. We need the public to help us protect kids.”
Speaking to her personal experience with an endangered child, Grace recalled the reactions of those close to her regarding her work on the child’s behalf. “So many of them would be trying to comfort me by saying, “You’re doing everything you can. It’s just the system. The system is broken,” she explained. “But that didn’t and still doesn’t seem like an acceptable answer to me. Whether the system is broken or not, these are lives that we’re talking about. These are our kids.”
While Nichols-Julien supported the notion that the child services system is broken, Zanville explained that the problem isn’t necessarily of a financial nature. “We have a $2.6 billion dollar budget. We’re the largest CPS agency in the nation,” he said of the Los Angeles DCFS. “We have about 4,000 social workers, our case loads are being reduced and we’re doing a better job these days of trying to actually understand and listen to our families in a more compassionate way. I guess we can always use more money, but it’s just an extremely difficult job.”
For Nichols-Julien, the bigget issue with the child welfare system is “the lack of humanity that we see.” “It’s so easy to put [all the kids] together in a group; it’s like a whole city of kids that would fill Staples Center in our system, and every single one of them has emotions and dreams and needs,” she said, applauding Grace for placing large societal issues within a specific, human context, looking at the life of one abused child. “Looking at the young person as an individual, as a human, [shows] that blood is really not what makes family, or what makes human connections. It’s a beautiful thing.”
While Day clarified that child abuse “does not discriminate on your economic status” and Zanville explained that abuse of some kind can be found within each of our own family trees, Nichols-Julien gave her take on what is giving her hope right now. “The system is broken because we shouldn’t have this many children in the system. But the people in the system are not broken. I’ve worked with so many child welfare social workers, with attorneys, with therapists, and nobody goes into this job for the money,” she said. “These are people who believe in justice, and believe in safety. The system is full of people who love children.”