Thursday, November 21, 2013

Adoption Movie Guide: Short Term 12

Grace is a supervisor at Short Term 12, a temporary group home for teenagers. She supervises (and dates) a veteran staff named Mason, and is in the process of training a new staff member named Nate. Grace is unexpectedly forced to confront her own past when a client’s present issues mirror Grace’s unresolved past. Will Grace be able to heal her own wounds, save her client from abuse, and keep her job and personal life in order? It’s a real challenge which she meets with some degree of success.  Short Term 12 is an emotionally gripping, realistic-feeling slice of life in a group home, and while the group home feels a little sanitary at times and a little overly-dramatic at times, the movie excels at capturing the raw feelings – those of the professionals that work with kids who’ve experienced abuse, and those of the kids themselves.

The Adoption Connection

One staff member at Short Term 12 was raised in foster care.

The film’s setting is also very relevant to adoption. I work in foster care adoption, and have known many children who, for one reason or another, are placed in group homes rather than family homes. Sometimes it’s because of a child’s behaviors; other times, it’s because there aren’t enough homes willing to take in a child of a certain age. Group homes are often places of waiting. Like Astrid in White Oleander, many teens are forced to wait in a group home, sometimes for months, other times for years.

A challenge, too, is that kids waiting in group homes might start to “seem” intimidating to foster parents. I’ve recently seen a kid emerge from a group home to thrive in an adoptive family, and I know my experience isn’t unique. Films like Short Term 12 might be helpful to humanize and normalize the kids in group homes, and might encourage some people to consider providing them with permanent homes. I appreciate that the group home portrays the group home staff as caring, but it also acknowledges, “We’re not their parent or therapist; we’re just here to create a safe environment.”  And admittedly, kids need parents. The film also highlights the emotional distress of an 18-year-old who is about to “age out” of the group home. Kids can succeed after aging out (See PBS’s documentary Aging Out), but many find themselves homeless or incarcerated. It might not have been the goal of Short Term 12 – but the film does highlight the need for foster parents willing to love, nurture, and provide permanency for teens.

Strong Points

The film captures powerful emotions. They’re honest. One character raps about being forced by his mother to sell drugs. He laments “living life, not knowing what a normal life is like.” Another writes heart-wrenchingly about an octopus being slowly killed by a shark who pretends to be her friend. It shows the power of creativity, and also conveys the experiences that are very real to some kids. This could encourage some adults to help, and could scare others away.
Even as an adult, Mason considers his former foster parents “Ma” and “Pa.” He honors them on their wedding anniversary by attending a party along with many of their other former foster children, and he notes, “Look at this beautiful family you made. You showed me what it was like to be loved. Everything good in my life is because of you.”

Nate progresses from being uncomfortable around the teens to being comfortable and competent. Prospective foster parents might be encouraged by this – even though teens might seem scary and intimidating, you eventually get used to being around them.

Many characters – staff and youths alike – demonstrate kindness even in the midst of their pain.


The group home staff has obvious love for their charges, but sometimes seem too quick to discipline. Behavior modification is sometimes necessary, but sometimes it’s better to figure out the root of the behavior, rather than only trying to fix it. (In the film, group home staff were pretty strict (and ineffective) about the teens not using foul language)  

The film is very evocative of emotion. In general, I think this is a good thing, but it could be too much from some viewers, depending on their history. Some scenes will be too traumatic for some viewers – one character was molested by her father, one character attempts suicide, we learn of one youth’s death, a character is seen engaging in self-harming behavior, and another character shows the scars from her own cutting.

Weak Points

Grace is frustrated when one of her teenagers is released for a visit with a parent who she believes abuses her. In real life, Grace would probably be a mandated reporter, and could have filed a child abuse report. By the way – sometimes, filing a child abuse report is the first step in saving a kid from ongoing abuse (as painful as it is to acknowledge, I have met and worked with several children who were ritualistically tortured. Child abuse hotline calls may have saved those kids’ lives.)

One professional discloses their own abuse history, for the first time ever, to a client. It actually helped build their relationship and helped the adult heal as well – but in real life, it’s not healthy to expect kids to carry adults’ burdens; in fact, many kids in foster care present as parentified and need help learning not to carry adults’ baggage.


The film is better aimed at adults (it is rated “R”); I can imagine many of the scenes and stories being very difficult for kids – and even for adults – who have experienced trauma. But if you think you can handle it, do watch Short Term 12. If you’re considering adoption – let this film be your introduction to the needs of teenagers in foster care. Want information about foster care adoption? The Dave Thomas Foundation is a great place to get started.

Questions for Discussion

What makes you want to help kids? What fuels that desire?

Have you ever felt that a professional was making an incorrect judgment about the care of a child in your home? How did you deal with that? What resources do you have that could help you “stand up” for your right to voice your perspective?

How can you be a part of meeting kids’ needs?


  1. Good review Addison. A very raw and realistic movie that has plenty of emotions going around, and none of them ever feel manipulative or false.

    1. Thanks Dan. I agree with what you said - it felt real. I used to work in a group home, and it felt authentic to me, too.

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