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Local filmmaker Joey Papa and his late daughter, Canaan, pause for a selfie in this undated photo taken sometime before Canaan's death at the age of 3½. Papa made a documentary about Canaan and other children and with special needs and is now working to produce a short documentary about the need for foster homes in southeastern Wisconsin. 

RACINE COUNTY — Less than a year after completing a film about special-needs children, local filmmaker Joey Papa is hoping to use his skills to help another voiceless population: foster kids.

Papa is calling the short documentary “(un)wanted,” and with it he is hoping to shine a light on the growing shortage of foster homes in southeastern Wisconsin.

The shortage has meant that counties have had to ship some foster kids out of the county to ensure they have a place to live.

A public speaker and self-described “media maker,” Papa, 37, first learned about the crisis from Heather Lojeski. Longtime foster parents Heather and Mark Lojeski created the nonprofit Faith, Hope & Love about four years ago. The organization helps kids in crisis, like foster children, by providing them with duffel bags filled with comfort items and personal care products.

As Papa, a father of four, learned more about the situation, he realized something needed to be done to encourage more families to open their homes to foster children.

“I was getting upset that I didn’t know this stuff,” Papa said Friday. “So, I was like, ‘I have to do something about that’ … all too often, we live with an individual mindset. For myself I always thought ‘Oh, the foster system, they’re just taking care of it.’ But the foster system doesn’t work without the community.”

Home matters

The documentary will cast a wide net, taking a look at the crisis in counties across southeastern Wisconsin.

Here in Racine County, Kerry Milkie, longtime manager for Racine County Human Services’ Youth and Family Division, is hoping the film will draw more local people to become foster parents.

The past two years have been some of the most difficult for finding foster homes here.

“We have not seen this type of shortage in a long time. I can’t recall a time where we have had a difficulty placing an infant. And I currently have difficulties placing infants. I have always had difficulty placing older children, but it has become almost impossible to place teenagers in foster care,” Milkie said.

In addition, because of the shortage, Milkie’s division has had to utilize foster homes outside the county.

The kids placed outside the county included more than a dozen sibling groups. The kids had to be placed out of the county to make sure the siblings were kept together.

The problem is that taking kids out of the county just creates more disruption, Milkie said.

“It is already traumatic to remove them from their homes,” she said. “If you add on that we have, in essence, eliminated their school and their school friends … it becomes a very traumatic issue.”

For its part, the county has formed a task force to help develop a sustainable recruitment plan for foster parents.

The film

The documentary is being produced by Papa and is sponsored by Faith, Hope & Love, and the Canaan Foundation.

This spring Papa finished “In the Land of Canaan,” a feature-length documentary chronicling the life of his daughter Canaan, who died in October 2015 at age 3 1/2, and the lives of other families with special-needs children.

After the movie was finished, Papa created the Canaan Foundation as a way to advocate for other children who don’t have a voice.

Once “(un)wanted” is done he plans to make it available to anyone interested in advocating for the foster care system.

“That’s why the name of the documentary is ‘(un)wanted,’ ” Papa said. “Obviously the kids are wanted by someone out there, but the message we are sending them when there is no home for them to go to is ‘you’re unwanted.’ ”

Papa plans to start pre-production later this month with hopes of a spring release.

Those interested in donating to the project or learning more about it can find information on the film’s Kickstarter page:

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