The odds seemed to be stacked against Ashley Rhodes Carter. Born to a teenage mother in Florida in 1985 and removed from her mother at the age of three, she spent ten years in 14 different homes, surviving abuse, neglect, and separation from her brother.
But Ashley defeated the odds. Adopted at the age of 12, Ashley completed high school, went to college on a full scholarship, and obtained a master’s in social work. In 2008, Ashley published Three Little Words, chronicling her harrowing journey through the child welfare system and her eventual adoption by a family whose loving care enabled her to blossom into an accomplished and successful adult.
I just discovered this book, which is surprisingly classified as Young Adult. But Three Little Words should be required reading for any child welfare professional. Ashley’s story illustrates some ways that things have improved and some ways they haven’t, and casts light on debates that are still raging.
Unhelpful Front End
Ashley and her brother were removed from their mother after she was arrested for writing a bad check. She was cleared and released in six days, but the children were not returned. Ashley’s mother was told she needed to provide for her children, but her applications for financial assistance and food stamps were denied because she did not have custody of them at the time.
Today, almost 30 years after Ashley’s removal, the field places a high priority on keeping kids at home and getting them back home as soon as possible with agency assistance. Nevertheless, children often stay in foster care long after they could be returned if the right help was available. Perhaps new legislation introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to change the financing of child welfare will help. It will give states the flexibility to use federal foster care funds on preventive services to keep kids at home.
But changes also need to be made in the culture of child welfare agencies and government agencies that interact with low-income people. Just last weekend, the New York Times carried the story of a woman who left her baby with a friend in the domestic violence shelter where they were living in order to purchase diapers after the official curfew. When she returned, the police were taking her baby away. She spent two weeks in jail and lost her shelter spot. Five months later, she was still fighting to get her child back.
Languishing in Foster Care
Ashley’s mother also had a problem with drugs and alcohol. Perhaps she would have received more help today, but she did not take advantage of the opportunities available at the time. She did not make herself available for visits and was often in jail. Despite that disinterest, Ashley was in foster care for over five years before her mother’s rights were terminated and she was freed for adoption.
Federal legislation passed in 1996 attempted to prevent children languishing in foster care for years. It requires agencies to initiate the termination of parents’ rights for children who have been in care for 15 of the last 22 months, with certain exceptions. This has certainly improved the chances for many children like Ashley to achieve permanency. However, in my experience in the District of Columbia, judges often did not cooperate with attempts to terminate parental rights, insisting that parents be given additional months or even years to regain their kids.
Safety vs. Well-Being
After Ashley had been in four different foster homes, she and her brother found a loving home with her grandfather and his common-law wife in South Carolina. But the children were eventually sent back to Florida to live with strangers. Ashley was never able to find out why they were sent back. There were apparently safety concerns regarding her grandfather’s lifestyle but Ashley felt that this was beside the point.
“It seemed logical to me that Luke and I would be safest with someone who actually loved us,” she writes in Three Little Words.
The conflict between safety and well-being for foster children still plagues the system today. There are no easy answers, but social workers need to understand the importance of a loving home to a child’s well-being and healthy development.
Bad Foster Homes
If safety really was the concern in the removal of Ashley from her relatives, the system truly failed when she was placed in the nightmarish home of the Moss family. In the Moss home, the husband stood by while his wife punished the children by pouring hot sauce in their mouths, requiring them to run and squat, dragging them by the hair, and in Ashley’s case, pushing her face into her own vomit.
The Mosses were investigated three times, but the charges were never substantiated because their word was taken over that of the children. It was only years later that Ms. Moss was arrested for abuse and neglect of children she adopted.
When she obtained their file, Ashley learned that the staff who originally licensed them had overlooked numerous red flags that should have prevented their being licensed at all. The file was full of praise for their great work as foster parents even as negative reports were ignored.
Horror stories like this exist but more common are the people who foster for the money and provide little more than room and board. This type of neglect may be less traumatic than horrific abuse, but it can be very harmful to children who need special attention.
The perennial shortage of foster parents means that agencies are extremely unlikely to fire bad ones. And one reason for this shortage is that the government is unwilling to spend the money it takes to pay for professional, full-time foster parents or family-style group homes. Which brings us to the next point…
Benefits of Group Homes
After many foster homes, Ashley was placed in a group home, where she stayed until she was adopted. Ashley’s tale makes clear the drawbacks of group homes: the institutional celebration of holidays, the lack of normalcy, and worst of all, the transience of staff.
But Ashley grew and matured in this home, and formed a close relationship with two staff members, who became lifelong connections. It seems clear that she got better care in the group home than she did in many of her foster homes. It was only in the group home that she found stability and relationships with caring adults, as well as the therapeutic services she needed. From the group home, she was adopted at the age of 12 by the Courter family, whose love and support enabled her to fulfill her great potential.
An Attorney for Every Child
Ashley’s book illustrates the necessity that every foster child have an advocate in court. It was only after a volunteer Guardian Ad Litem was appointed that the government moved to terminate her mother’s rights.
The only way to make sure that every child has an advocate is to mandate that an attorney be appointed for every child in foster care. A 2008 report indicates that 31 states plus the District of Columbia mandated the appointment of an attorney. The other states—including Florida–need to follow suit. The appointment of an advocate should be a right, not a privilege. It may even save money if it leads to children exiting foster care sooner.
Ashley Rhodes-Courter went on to become a motivational speaker, author, foster parent, adoptive parent, and birth mother. She chronicles these experiences in her new memoir, Three More Words, just published this year.