Born in 1985 to a teenage mother, Ashley was in Florida’s foster care system for almost a decade before she was adopted. She is the author of the international best-seller Three Little Words, the story of her life in care and her adoption, which is being made into a major motion picture. In 2015, she published Three More Words, the story of her more recent family life and her efforts to make peace with her past. Learn more at http://rhodes-courter.com/.
There was a time when my identity was that of an abused, neglected, and abandoned foster child. Sometimes I sense that the same lonely little girl still resides somewhere deep inside. However, I’m relieved to now have a cluster of other, more positive, identities: social worker, wife, mother, foster mother, adoptive mother, writer, and advocate. Today, my experiences inside and outside of the system inform my choices and decisions. Having these dual life experiences—on the giving and receiving end—energizes my work to make certain that all children have a chance to experience the love and nurturing that I was denied.
I was three years old when my teen mother was arrested, and I spent almost 10 years in foster care, living in 14 different placements including two institutions. Defying the odds, I was adopted at the age of 12 from a group home. Although I tested every limit, my new parents refused to give up on me, even when I escalated my antics to see what it would take to send me back.
Often people ask when I was able to fully embrace my adoptive family. While a single specific instance is difficult to pinpoint, over time I experienced moments of normalcy—feeling homesick at a long summer camp, being proud to have parents cheering me on at sporting events or giving me a standing ovation during the curtain call of one of my school plays. I also came to fully appreciate all that it meant to have a family when I went away to college, I knew that now I always had a place to call “home.” My school was only two hours away so I would always find excuses (and plenty of dirty laundry) to touch base with my family. On parents’ weekend, when most of the students couldn’t wait for their irritating parents to leave, I reveled that I had parents who wanted to meet my friends and faculty. During my college years especially, our relationship became stronger than ever. Today, I can’t fathom what my life would be without my adoptive parents. It took me years to accept, trust, and believe that they would not give up on me, and I constantly feared being rejected all over again. Luckily, they allowed me to adjust at my own speed and had incredible patience.
Just as it took me many years to reciprocate feelings for my parents, I found I had the same issues when I started dating. I repeatedly tested my now-husband’s devotion for more than six years before I finally accepted his proposal. Since then, he has joined me in becoming a guardian ad litem (CASA volunteer), championed my advocacy efforts, and later put his professional aspirations on hold to become the lead parent at home while I finished my master’s degree in social work.
Shortly after we were married, we became foster parents almost by accident. Two of his young relatives had been placed in a kinship situation and because I knew the system so well, I told him it might be a good idea for us to become formally licensed so we could pitch in with their care. During our classes, we learned that the local pill-mill epidemic had escalated the number of babies who needed emergency care until they could be shifted into appropriate placements. Naively, we thought we could take in little ones for a night or two now and then.
Our first toddler girl stayed for a long holiday weekend until her targeted family returned from vacation. Our next little boy was with us for more than a year. Over the next three years we fostered more than 20 children.
We knew that one day we would try to have birth children, but we couldn’t turn away from the immediate need these children had for safety and nurturing. Soon we became expert diaper changers, car seat installers, and formula mixers, but I found that my strength, especially with the older children, was having an innate understanding of what that child was feeling during the upheaval of removal and adjusting to a new way of life. I sensed their trauma and seemed to know when to reach out and when to withdraw. My husband is kind, gentle, and soft-spoken. Many of the children were wary of him at first because they had either never had a father figure, or they were used to violent, loud, or aggressive men. All of the children quickly came to adore him.
One toddler, whose baby teeth were rotted stubs, hid behind the curtains and waved his hands in front of his face. His workers were quick to label him autistic, but I saw fear and hunger instead. He rejected all food offered at first. His teenage sister had been placed in a group home and their caseworker refused to let us talk to her. By standing firm and invoking the rights siblings have to contact, I was ultimately able to connect with his sister. She explained that the boy had only ever eaten Gatorade, Cheez-Its, and Fig Newtons. With this knowledge, we were able to re-create similar, but healthier foods, then slowly introduce fresh fruit and vegetables. I knew not to push him too quickly. Because of my history, to this day I still have issues related to food insecurity, meal or snack choices, and portion sizes. I drove my mother insane during my teen years as she desperately wanted me to eat a more balanced diet. This is why she finds particular irony in the fact that our children grow, pick, and eat organic fruits and vegetables in our backyard.
Our foster care training emphasized “co-parenting” practices, and encouraged us to work as a team with the biological parents as a way to expedite reunification. For most cases, we could support this philosophy. My husband and I were gratified when some of our foster children went to live with parents or relatives who offered protection and love. However, several children were returned to chaotic, dangerous environments with parents who could not keep their children safe. One sexually abused toddler with several STDs went back to live with her mother and older brothers who had injured her. The mother admitted that she knew her daughter had been raped since infancy, but she didn’t think “it was that big of a deal.”
Our foster daughter, Jenica Randazzo, age 9, transitioned from our home to an amazing adoptive family. Without warning, the plan changed back to reunification, and Jenica was returned to the relatives from whom she had been removed. In February 2015, our worst fears were realized when she was brutally murdered by her mentally ill uncle who resided in the home. Systemically, we must take a flexible, individualized approach to protect children and find each child his or her ideal permanency solution. Reunification isn’t right in every case just as adoption isn’t the answer for every child.
We had not gone into fostering with the intention to adopt. As expected, most of the children either returned to a parent or were placed with another family member. The few kids who became available for adoption found good placements. Adoption saved my life in so many ways. My brother entered the foster care system as an infant and nearly aged out. I often wonder how his life might be different if he had been adopted much sooner. Instead, he is now a felon many times over and is back in jail for his latest offenses.
Our eldest son, Skyler, came to us at four months old after being removed from a full-body cast. He and his toddler brother were beaten severely and left to suffocate in a trailer that reached over 104 degrees before their listless bodies were found. His brother left our home to live with his birth father, who had been identified through paternity testing. Their mother had not been present when the abuse occurred and was given a case plan. Skyler’s mother had spent time in foster care herself so I was sympathetic to her plight and wanted her to succeed. At that time, I was also pregnant with our first biological son and could not imagine how I would feel having my baby taken from me.
When we brought our newborn son home to meet Skyler, we wondered how deeply either child would feel the loss when Skyler moved on. Skyler’s mother was now pregnant with her third child, and professionals worried how she would handle the responsibility of several young children on her own. As the months passed, I tried to withhold some of my feelings for Skyler—like I had for my adoptive family and for the man I would marry—as a way of protecting myself for the inevitable separation. Yet I was torn because I loved both of these little boys equally; in reality, Skyler had been in our hearts much longer. When things began to shift in the case, we decided that we would adopt Skyler if he were to become available. However, we knew that the court would have final say despite any personal or professional recommendations given. While the caseworker suggested we stop mentoring Skyler’s mother and essentially let her sink or swim, my adoptive mother, who has been a guardian ad litem for more than 20 years, said that this was actually the time to engage her more, and show her how much we cared for her son. What followed was a complex process that cannot be detailed in a few sentences, but I do describe it in my new memoir: Three More Words.
Just before he turned two, we adopted Skyler and still include his mother in our lives. She left the state and has had two more children. During the legal proceedings (on National Adoption Day!), I looked around the judge’s chambers crowded with family members and friends, and I remembered how anxious and wary I had been on my adoption day. My beaming new son had known nothing but happiness with us—the only home he would ever remember. We could stop worrying about his uncertain future. I had known about the cycle of abuse because it coursed through my blood–and Skyler’s too. Both of our mothers had been in foster care. But on that day, I realized we were creating a new paradigm: The cycle of adoption.