Recently, there's been some buzz about 24 year old Redmond O'Neal, son of Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O'Neal, being arrested for violating his parole on drug charges. The young man is now sitting in a Los Angeles jail while his mother battles anal cancer. Redmond O'Neal is just one of many young people in America who grew up privileged and turned out troubled. Thanks to CNN and FoxNews, we can read about cases like Redmond O'Neal's all the time; yet we don't as often hear about people like Ashley Rhodes-Courter, author of 2008's Three Little Words: A Memoir. That's a pity, since Rhodes-Courter's story is so much more inspirational and uplifting. Perhaps it's also much rarer as well. Wouldn't it be nice if our media focused more on the positive rather than the disappointing?
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Ashley Rhodes-Courter was born in 1985, the daughter of a seventeen year old girl named Lorraine in South Carolina. Ashley never knew her biological father when she was growing up. Her earliest memories of a father figure are of her mother's abusive husband, Dusty. Ashley's mother went on to have two more children before she turned 20, Tommy, who died of SIDS after 48 days of life, and Luke, Dusty's son. Ashley writes that Dusty and her mother were neglectful drug abusers who apparently didn't know the first thing about how to take care of children. She explains that her mother would carefully strap her into her carseat, but neglect to strap the carseat into the car.
One day, Ashley's mother decided they needed to get a fresh start in a new location. They headed for Florida, where Lorraine hoped that Dusty would be able to find work. Everything changed when Dusty was pulled over for not having a license plate. The cop then arrested him for not having a license plate or a valid driver's license. A couple of days later, the cops showed up at the duplex Lorraine and Dusty had rented and arrested Lorraine. That was how Ashley and her brother, Luke, ended up as foster children in the state of Florida.
What follows is Ashley's harrowing story of her life in a series of foster homes and children's shelters. Sometimes she was allowed to stay with her brother, but more often, they were separated. All the while, she wondered what had happened to her mother and when she would get to see her again. At one point, she and Luke were sent back to live in South Carolina with Lorraine's alcoholic father and his live in girlfriend, Adele. Adele turned out to be a wonderful mother figure, but it soon became clear that Ashley's grandfather was an unsuitable guardian. Moreover, no one in Florida had ever given permission for Ashley and Luke to move to South Carolina. They came back to Florida, plunged back into the system after tentatively bonding with Adele.
In all, Ashley Rhodes-Courter spent nine years in fourteen different foster homes. She was unable to bond with her caregivers or learn to trust them because she was constantly being shuffled around. One foster family turned out to be shockingly abusive, while another foster dad was later revealed to be a sex offender. Through the years, Ashley saw Lorraine a handful of times and was always left with hope that someday her mother would be able to reclaim her. Sometimes Lorraine would be scheduled for a visit and fail to show up; sometimes Lorraine would show up with gifts, which would inevitably be lost as Ashley moved from home to home. With each move, Ashley and her brother lost track of their few possessions. I found myself imagining what it must have felt like to be constantly moved from one place to the next, unable to form attachments.
Ashley's saving grace was her uncommon intelligence. She did very well in school and had impressive leadership qualities. She was also lucky enough to run into Mary Miller, a woman who acted as her guardian at litem and later helped Ashley and Luke escape the foster care system. Ashley's mother finally lost her parental rights and Ashley was eventually adopted as a twelve year old, but it took a very long time for her to gain enough trust and stability to be able to say three little words to her adoptive parents.
Ashley Rhodes-Courter is an incredible young woman as evidenced in her memoir, Three Little Words. This book offers a rare first person glimpse of what it's like to be a foster child. More than that, it shows readers how much children need stability in their lives. A good portion of this book focuses on Ashley's life after her adoption and the adjustment issues she dealt with even after she found a loving forever family.
Since I have a master's degree in social work, I was also interested in reading about how the child welfare system served Ashley and her brother. As it turned out, the system did a very poor job looking after Ashley and others like her. Even though Ashley's mother was irresponsible and abusive, some of Ashley's licensed caregivers were just as bad. At best, Ashley generally spent a lot of time in overcrowded, impersonal conditions. At worst, Ashley was beaten with a slotted spoon, forced to drink hot sauce, subjected to grueling physical punishments, and exposed to pornography. It's very clear by Ashley's account that there are not enough caring people serving as foster parents and too many people who are in it just because the state pays them.
And yet, as someone who has been a social worker, I can also understand why these things happen. One of the reasons I don't practice social work (besides the fact that I am now married to the military) is that it's a thankless, low paying, stressful job. A lot of people go into social work because they want to help people. But the system makes it difficult for social workers to be as helpful as they should be and there aren't enough families who are willing to take in foster kids. So I can see why some inappropriate couples were approved to be foster parents, even if I don't condone it. Ashley seems to be doing her best to change the situation for foster kids. Inspired by the film Erin Brockovich and helped by her adoptive parents, Ashley Rhodes-Courter went on to bring a class action suit against the foster parents who had abused her and so many other children.
One thing I noticed about Three Little Words is there's a little plug for Wendy's restaurants in it. Dave Thomas, the late founder of Wendy's, was an adopted child and did a lot of work for the adoption cause. Ashley was also a fan of Wendy's Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers.
Ashley Rhodes-Courter's story is amazing. She was able to channel her writing and public speaking talents into something very valuable for children. I am humbled by her courage and resolve to change the child welfare system.
I think Three Little Words is an excellent read for anyone who is interested in the child welfare system, as well as anyone who just likes an uplifting memoir. I was able to read this book in a matter of hours and I felt good when I finished it. I have a feeling we'll be hearing a lot more from Ashley Rhodes-Courter in the coming years.
Ashley's Web site: http://www.rhodes-courter.com/index.html
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