A caseworker had reported the little girl had animal cruelty issues, noticed as early as age 4 when she “would shoot birds” when she was angry.
The information followed little Ashley Rhodes-Courter for seven more years in the Florida foster care system and came as a shock to her when, years later, she read her case files. She didn’t remember this at all. Did she have a slingshot at age 4? A BB gun?
“I went back to that foster home and asked the couple what the deal was, and they both just looked at me and started laughing,” said Rhodes-Courter.
It turned out no birds were ever harmed. What little Ashley did when she was mad was – Rhodes-Courter held out her hand to her audience on Wednesday and extended her middle finger. She said the foster parents told her she picked up the gesture – shooting the “bird” – after a visit with her birth mother and the woman’s boyfriend.
“Never judge a child by her case file!” Rhodes-Courter said. “You have an opportunity to know them as an individual – let them know they can have aspirations.”
She was addressing a morning workshop on foster care issues, attended by staffers from Baker Victory Services and mental health organizations as well as nurses, child advocates and at least one school counselor. Around the room, people were nodding their heads as she spoke.
Rhodes-Courter, who was brought to Buffalo for the workshop and a dinner Wednesday night by the Mental Health Association of Erie County, has a unique perspective on the foster care system. She spent most of her childhood in foster homes – 14 in total – and now, at age 27, is a foster parent herself. She also is mother to a 6-month-old, has her master’s degree in social work and is a best-selling author whose memoir, “Three Little Words,” is being made into a movie.
The three little words refer to the one caring person who changed her life, the court-appointed special advocate who became her champion. Thanks to this woman, whom she calls her “Athena,” Ashley was adopted when she was about 13 (she lived with her adoptive family first), had a stable home during her teen years and ran for public office in her mid-20s.
The film is scheduled to be directed by James Mangold and to star Reese Witherspoon as Ashley’s advocate. The harder role might be that of Ashley herself, with her round, freckled cheeks, curly red hair and wisdom beyond her years.
An energetic and entertaining speaker, Rhodes-Courter is a vivid example of a person who came through her experiences not harder but tougher.
“Children need permanency, not programs,” she said. “They need people in their lives who will progress them in a positive way.”
Her talk was peppered with horror stories from her time in the Florida foster care system – of being branded a “liar” for reporting a couple who had taken in 16 children at once, beat them, starved them, locked them outside the two-room trailer where they lived, and forced them to drink hot sauce. Checking back, she discovered 25 percent of her foster parents were or became convicted felons.
“Growing up in foster care made for one heck of a college essay,” she joked. “I got accepted everywhere I applied.”
Wanting to go to college was part of the “business plan” she had for herself when she was adopted.
“It was this very calculated decision,” she said. Both her future parents’ other children had gone to college, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to afford it from the group home.
While she is happy to tell of the love in her family and how great her adoptive parents are, she acknowledges it took years to get to that point.
She said foster children “don’t want to need anybody, we don’t want to love anybody, because that can be a letdown when it’s taken away,” she said.