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INSTANT FAMILY movie: a funny and fairly accurate picture of life as a foster/adoptive parent

BY: Emily Kuezek, MSW
Foster Care Adoption Social Worker

Some of the CHS staff were able to attend an early screening of the new Instant Family movie at an event sponsored by Virginia Kids Belong, and we thought it was a hit! Instant Family follows a couple, Pete and Ellie, who begin the foster care adoption process. They attend a match event, meet a feisty 15 year-old teen girl named Lizzie, and end up receiving placement of her and her two siblings, Juan and Lita. Not only did the movie have us laughing from the first minute, but it, in many ways, I thought that it portrayed a I thought I would break down some of our favorite parts, and what might be different for families who pursue the process in real life in Virginia.


  • Youth in foster care are amazing. The movie highlighted the strengths of each of the children and gave insight into why they were struggling in different ways. I found it easy to like them and feel empathy, especially knowing the context of what they had been through. Like Lizzie, Juan, and Lita, the youth in foster care that I know are resilient, funny, and each have their own unique strengths!
  • Many families expect fostering/adopting to unfold a certain way, and it ends up being very different. Like Pete and Ellie, I’ve seen various families adjust their openness to age, gender, or number of children when hearing a certain child’s story or as they learn more about the process.
  • Fostering/adopting is HARD at times for everyone in the family. The movie didn’t shy away from the tough realities – even the conversation Pete and Ellie had on their bed when they considered giving the children back.
  • Youth in foster care struggle with trust, may have challenging behaviors, and do best with therapeutic parenting. The movie showed many of the typical behaviors we see in young people who have experienced trauma. Lizzie’s role as the parentified child who pushed away love and affection is something we see all too often, especially with the oldest child in a sibling group.
  • It doesn’t get better right away. Bonding, earning trust, creating safety, improving behavior, and teaching skills often take more time than we think.
  • Youth who have been hurt CAN start to heal with the right balance of structure, nurture, and therapeutic support. Like Lizzie, Juan, and Lita, I know many youth who are now thriving because they feel safe, secure, loved, and wanted.


  • The real-life timeline may be different. I recognize that the movie fit the whole process into a two hour timeframe (not an easy task!), so expect that the process from initial training to finalization to be longer in real time. It may take some families (even those who are open to older children) a year or longer to find the right match, depending on the various factors of their households and who is in them. Once a match is identified, the social work team coordinates day visits, weekend visits, file reviews, and service planning all prior to the placement.
  • With adoption, the birth parent involvement may look different. In Virginia, if a child is legally free for adoption, there may or may not be contact with birth family members. If there is visitation, a social worker may assist in facilitating the visits to provide support. Once a child is legally free for adoption in Virginia, the birth parents no longer have parental rights.
  • The real-life system is challenging. The movie portrayed some of the challenges, but real-life foster/adoptive parents know that there is much more to it. There are typically many more workers involved than just Karen and Sharon in the movie, including the following: family’s social worker, child’s DSS worker, TFC case manager, therapist, mentor, school support, etc. In addition to the day-to-day needs, foster/adoptive parents coordinate, provide transportation for, and participate in various services for the children. That’s a lot to manage!
  • Fostering-to-Adopt may not be as clean-cut as it was in the movie. *spoiler alert* When Lizzie, Juan, and Lita’s birth mother did not show up for their reunification day, the family was able to have a heart-to-heart with Lizzie about being adopted by them. Being a foster parent in real life may look very different, and a foster family may parent a child for well over the 5 months in the movie before the child becomes legally free for adoption.

I highly recommend that you check out this movie when it comes out in theaters on November 16! (Please note that the rating is PG-13).