Mari Frankel is an unlikely Michael Moore, in her comfortably casual house on Palm Beach’s north end full of kids’ sports equipment.
She opens the door wearing the Palm Beach uniform of a cotton tunic and narrow pants, her tanned glow the result of tennis games and paddleboarding sessions on the Intracoastal.
Yet, this 55-year-old mother of three, 15-year board member of Adopt-a-Family and a Guardian Ad Litem for Palm Beach County courts has become a crusading documentary filmmaker, who produced a powerful film portraying Florida’s foster child system as an inept failure when it comes to protecting the children in its care.
“I don’t mind putting myself outside the box,” said Frankel, whose father was restaurateur Chuck Muer, who owned Charley’s Crab and Chuck and Harold’s restaurants in Palm Beach. He and Frankel’s mother and another couple disappeared without a trace aboard Muer’s 40-foot sailboat in a 1993 storm off the coast of Palm Beach County.
Frankel readily admits she has no journalism or film background.
“I really didn’t stop to figure it out, I just did it,” she said. “I just plowed into what was wrong with the system.”
She was so horrified by what she saw after becoming a court-appointed advocate for children, that she felt compelled to make public what she says is a system geared more toward making a profit from abused and neglected children than caring for them.
“There’s unacceptable,” she says, “and then there’s reprehensible.”
Frankel contends that Florida’s child welfare system went off the rails nearly 20 years ago when then-Gov. Jeb Bush privatized foster care. Virtually all responsibility for children in the state’s care went to local private, for-profit entities, whose executives often earn large salaries while warehousing children, she says.
“They have a $2.9 billion dollar budget and these kids aren’t getting their basic needs met,” Frankel said.
She recalled her first case about six years ago in which a mentally-challenged little boy had been sexually abused in a therapeutic foster home.
“The second time I visited, I was with a therapist. The boy told the therapist what happened. The therapist turned to me and said, ‘These kids say these things all the time. I don’t believe it.’ They put another kid in there that night and he was also raped,” said Frankel.
To help her tell the story, Frankel hired filmmaker Brian Bayerl of Wilton Manors, who immediately connected with Frankel’s outrage.
“People don’t necessarily need the film experience to do a documentary,” he said, “because I know how to make a film. What I need is the passion of someone who is fighting injustice and wants to fix it. That’s what I liked about Mari.”
The story is told by several former foster children, now adults, who tell their stories of sexual abuse and neglect, of not having enough to eat and of group home supervisors so poorly trained they relied on police to deal with the slightest rule infraction.
“Most (group homes) have more than 200 police calls a year. A lot have 500 a year. Some had more than 800 per year, in group homes that usually have 9 to 12 kids,” Frankel said.
Angel, now 24, grew up in more than 50 foster homes. Her dying mother was in hospice care, yet Angel’s caseworker didn’t notify her so she could say good-bye. In the film, Angel breaks down as she described being told of her mother’s death two days after it happened.
“She was so lost in the system that her caseworker couldn’t find her,” said Frankel.
Bayerl said they hired researchers to back up claims made in the film.
“Everything has been fact-checked,” he said.
Frankel said she’s sent copies of “Foster Shock” to officials at the Department of Children and Families in Tallahassee and to a few elected officials.
She doesn’t yet know if any of them have watched it.
IF YOU GO
Foster Shock is scheduled to be shown at the Palm Beach International Film Festival.
When, where: Saturday, April 9 at 11 a.m. at G-Star Studios, 2030 S. Congress Ave., West Palm Beach and Wednesday, April 13 at 8:25 p.m. at Muvico Parisian, Auditorium 17, 545 Hibiscus St., West Palm Beach.