Thursday, April 28, 2016

Repost of my review of Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

I posted this review on Epinions a several years ago-- what do you know?  I posted it exactly seven years ago today!  I remember reading it the first time we lived here.  It's an excellent book about one woman's experience being in foster care.  I'm reposting it to keep it alive so others can read it.

  • Surviving foster care against the odds...

    Review by knotheadusc
     in Books, Music, Hotels & Travel 
      April, 28 2009
  • Pros: Sheds light on the plight of foster children. Uplifting.
    Cons: Some parts may make you angry.
    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?

    Ashley Rhodes-Courter was born in South Carolina in 1985, the daughter of a seventeen year old girl named Lorraine. 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.

    My thoughts

    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:


  1. Ashley Rhodes-Courter's account of the foster care system is horrid but not very surprising to me. Lousy foster parents seem to be more the rule than the exception. I didn't have any foster-child peers in the community in which my family lived from the time I was nine until I graduated from high school. Before then i had some classmates who were in foster care, but it didn't seem as though any of them were around for long enough for anyone to get to know them.

    As a school psychologist and administrator my mom dealt with child welfare situations. Sometimes she was the initial reporter of abuse. She said it was really hard at times to follow the law and to report the abuse when, if a child were removed from the home, the child's new situation was not likely to improve much if at all. In the end, as you certainly know, any mandated reporter has to follow the law and report suspected abuse or risk serious repercussions for failure to report.

    I've already filled out my mandated reporter form for clerkships. Reporting is more clear-cut for doctors. while a physician or physician-in-training is aware of how stressful, intimidating, and humiliating it would be to be investigated by a child welfare system, if a child's condition might logically have come from not being properly cared for, you report it, period. It's really more clear-cut for a doctor. And the doctor will probably never see the child again. If the parent retains custody of the child, the parent will not bring the kid back to the hospital or clinic that reported him or her. If the parent loses custody, the child will most likely leave the community, and for that reason the physician will never see the child again.

    It's different when a professional has to continue to be involved with the family. In most cases parents would pack up and move to get away from a school district whose officials reported the parents, but doing such may not be feasible.

    My mom made a really broad generalization about foster families which obviously cannot be true in every case but which she finds to be true more often than not. she said that in the communities in which she has worked, African-American foster parents have more often been in the foster care system for the right reasons then have any other demographic group with which she has dealt. In a lot of our African-American communities here, there is an expectation that if you can help in that way, you will do so. In most cases, these are families who don't necessarily need the money and aren't motivated by the money that it pays. they actually try to do right by the children. Obviously not every African-American foster parent is of high quality, nor is every non-African-American foster parent of low quality. It's a broad generalization.

    1. I just thought the book was interesting because so many people glibly suggest taking the kids from "poor parents". They don't know that the alternative could be much worse.

    2. It would be one thing if this book was the rare exception, but unfortunately, though poor Ashley's case may have been a bit extreme, it is still pretty close to what a whole lot of foster kids live through.

  2. My mom also said that the mandated reporting law in California was tightened up because of the situation of Steven Stayner (brother of the infamous Cary Stayner). You've probably heard of Steven Stayner's case. I think it was even a made-for-TV movie. He was abducted on his way home from school in Merced, California, and was being raised and regularly abused by Kenneth Parnell, his kidnapper. When Stayner was 14 and too old to continue to satisfy Parnell's sick desires any longer, Parnell kidnapped another young boy. Stayner recognized the pattern of history repeating itself and walked the little boy into town to the police station, where the whole mess was discovered.

    In uncovering the details, it was learned that Steven Stayner had told a teacher in Ukiah not long after he was abducted that Parnell had abducted him, but the teacher didn't believe him and did not pass the information along.

    One other thing that my own parents learned from the Stayner situation was that Steven Stayner had tried to phone home but was out of his area code and only knew the last seven digits of his phone number. My parents always taught us our area code (and to dial 1 first) along with the rest of our phone number from the age of approximately two so that it would be one more defense against kidnapping were it to happen to us.

  3. I'm not sure I had heard of that case. I will have to read up on it.


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