"Instant Family": A Film about Fostering and Adoption

What Hollywood got right and what is missing.

Posted Nov 28, 2018

Instant Family, currently playing, is a Hollywood comedy with poignant moments about a serious subject — the U.S. foster care system and families who adopt older children out of foster care. The director and co-writer, Sean Anders, draws on his own experience (with his wife) of adopting children from foster care. Not surprisingly, then, the film presents adoption from the perspective of an adoptive parent, with little attention to the birth family. The birth mother is depicted in completely negative terms. However, Instant Family begins to depict the emotional and psychological impact on children of living with a neglectful parent, and of being moved around in the foster-care system.

The plot focuses on a white, well-off middle-aged couple (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) who buy, fix up, and resell (flip) houses for a living. They decide to investigate adopting an older foster child, not because of known infertility, but because they now want a family, and the husband doesn’t want to be an old dad. Neither wants to go through the early years of raising an infant. Their naiveté is characteristic of many foster and adoptive parents, but most are not as self-centered as this couple. They end up with three Latino siblings, a 15-year-old and her younger brother and sister.

Instant Family doesn’t sugarcoat the problems of inexperienced foster parents dealing with damaged and disruptive foster children. Trying to make a comedy out of the chaos that ensues doesn’t really work. More effective is the depiction of how love gradually grows between foster parents and children.

The film does a good job of portraying the social workers (Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro) who maintain the foster system. It shows some of the best in current practice in the system, but also the problems and inadequacies. In the film, and often in reality, prospective foster parents are required to attend an eight-week education course where they learn about the problems they will face. After children are placed, foster parents have to attend regular support group meetings.  Foster parents (in the film and in real life) include gay, lesbian, and single parents. Most (but not all) are white with economic resources.

Until the 1990s, the U.S. foster-care system had as its stated goal the reuniting of children with their biological families. But in 1997, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act which shifted from family preservation to the goal of children’s health and safety. This measure encouraged easier and faster adoption by foster parents. The Act even gave financial incentives to public agencies that increased the number of finalized adoptions of children in their care. We see the consequences of this in the film.  

When the birth mother gets out of jail and stays clean for four months, the social workers help her go to court, where a judge gives the children back to her. The birth mother and foster parents see each other as enemies and don’t speak to each other. The social workers don’t try to modify this. There is no support group or education for the birth parent, nor does she receive financial or housing help to relieve the poverty of her circumstances. When she can’t face trying to raise three children in her tiny apartment without economic resources, she starts using again and forfeits her new custody rights. The social workers don’t help her, but immediately return the children to the foster parents. There is no indication that she will have any further relationship with her children.

This struck me as deplorable, but a common outcome. There are alternatives which are not depicted in the film.

I have interviewed a white gay male couple that adopted two African-American girls out of foster care. They are successfully maintaining ongoing relationships with the birth families. The adoptive parents make it clear that this is not shared custody, and that the adoption is permanent, but they are trying with some success to form extended family relationships combining biological and adoptive kin across race and class lines to the benefit of their adopted children and to themselves. The adoptive parents still have economic and white privilege, but they are using it to try to reform how adoption from foster care is practiced.

If the birth mother in the film could conquer her substance abuse once, maybe she could do it again if it was a condition to see her children on a regular basis without the responsibility of raising them. But Instant Family sees family as nuclear with only some participation by two white grandmothers.

I am most critical of the fairy tale ending of the film, implying that once the parents adopted the kids, everything was great. There is no indication that the adoptive children will most likely face ongoing psychological and social difficulties. Research shows that the older the child is when adopted, and the more trauma and displacement involved, the more likely the adopted child is to have continued emotional and psychological problems. The adoptive couple, too, most likely will face future problems as parents. As the credits roll, many pictures of what I presume are real, adoptive nuclear families flash on the screen. There is also the name of an agency to contact if members of the audience want to investigate foster parenting. The audience is not directed to where they might find more information on how to reunify families or how to reform the foster care system.


Families by Law, Part III on Foster Care, edited by Naomi R. Cahn and Joan Heifetz Hollinger. New York: NYU Press, 2004

See “Contemporary Adoption in the United States” by Devon Brooks, Cassandra Simmel, Leslie Wind and Richard Barth in Psychological Issues in Adoption: Research and Practice.  Edited by David M. Brodzinsky and Jesus Palacios. Westport, Connecticut, Praeger Publishers, 2005)