After college, Courtney Allen of Newburgh fell into a career as a caseworker, a field that comes with an abundance of conflict and catastrophes. But it was a different kind of drama that she was craving.
She'd majored in media and communications in college, and had set her sights on a career in television. "I loved my clients that I had as a caseworker, and I think I was really good at it," she says. "But the whole time I kept asking myself 'Why am I doing this? I want to be doing TV.' I suddenly realized that what I was doing would actually be great on television."
Since the sensitive nature of casework meant that a reality show was out of the question, Allen started working on a dramatized version of her experiences. Seven years later, the first season of her "At Risk" series can now be seen online via atriskseries.com.
Consisting of 10 short episodes, "At Risk" follows five caseworkers as they go about their jobs and examines how their professional lives and their personal lives intersect. "You get to see the drama behind it all and see that caseworkers aren't perfect," she says. "Their lives can be just as screwed up as their clients'. I always tell people that the series is kind of a mix between 'Law & Order: SVU' and 'House' - only for child welfare services."
Not counting the actors, Allen had a crew of only about a half-dozen people to help her create the show, but one of those crew members was there from the very beginning: Her daughter Skye, now 11. When Allen was first writing the series, she'd drag Skye with her to the Newburgh Free Library every other week to meet with Allen's co-writer, Jessica Columbo.
Skye went along with her mom to scout locations, actor auditions, and to errand runs during filming. "I wanted to show her that once you start something, you finish it," Allen says. "And one of my biggest pushes was for her to see me at the beginning, so when she saw the end product, she would know that her mom never gave up."
Despite seeing first-hand how much work went into creating the series, Skye says that she'd be interested in working on a show of her own someday. "Besides, I knew from the beginning it was going to be a lot of work," she says.
Art imitates life
Both her casework and her efforts to present a fictionalized version of casework led Allen to the realization that there's no perfect way to parent. "A lot of my work as a caseworker was about analyzing other people's parenting skills, focusing on the good skills versus the bad skills, and seeing what I could do to fix the bad skills," she says. "But there's no handbook for parenting. Sometimes I'd look at the way other people were parenting and ask myself, 'Would I do that?'"
Allen says she has parenting challenges of her own as Skye moves into the 'tween years - including finding the right balance between giving her daughter enough freedom to grow while maintaining rules and regulations. "Are my rules strong enough?" Allen says. "I don't want to be yelling at her all the time, because if I yell at her in the morning then maybe she'll have a bad day because of it. I don't want to be her friend just yet. Later on in life we'll be friends. Right now I just want to make sure we understand each other and for her to feel like she can talk to me."
Now that "At Risk" has been released, Allen is hoping for enough positive response to warrant her working on a second season. "I have some ideas of where I want it to go," she says. "The season finale is actually a kind of cliffhanger." At this, Skye shoots her a look. "What? Did I just give too much away?" Allen asks her daughter. "No, but I want to know what happens next!" Skye replies. "I don't know what happens next!" says Allen with a laugh. "It hasn't come out of my mind yet."
Brian PJ Cronin is a freelance writer whose work appears throughout the Hudson Valley.