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When Ashley Rhodes-Courter talks about the numbers, you start to get the picture.
Removed from custody from her birth mother at age 3, she lived in 14 different foster homes over the span of almost 10 years before being adopted.
“My story unfortunately reflects the darker side of the foster system,” she said.
But it isn't the darkness that defines her. Now 25, Rhodes-Courter is a college graduate. She and her husband, Erick, have three children they foster. She has also written a book about her experiences, and gives speeches at professional and civic groups, to judges and lawyers, at fundraising and awareness events, and to anyone else who will have her.
“Pretty much anyone who will listen to me and my big mouth,” she said with a laugh.
Spreading the word about adoption and pushing for reform of adoption and foster policies is now her role.
“Even though my story wasn’t really ideal, there is still much hope,” she said.
Having an Advocate, Having a Voice
Born to a young woman who had three children by the age of 20, Rhodes-Courter’s first years were spent living in an unstable home. Her birth mother and her boyfriend were ultimately arrested for passing bad checks and the children were removed.
“She didn't have any resources, and she spiraled into negativity,” Rhodes-Courter said.
Some of the foster homes weren't bad, some were. In a particularly appalling residence, 16 foster kids were made to share two bedrooms, she said. Children were routinely beaten, starved, and locked outside in cold weather.
“It was pretty awful,” she said.
The first light Rhodes-Courter saw at the end of the tunnel was a Guardian ad Litem assigned to cases of children who spent five years or more in the foster care system. Guardian ad Litems, also known as Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs), are people appointed by courts to serve as independent representatives of a child's best interest. This is sometimes because the best interests of a child differ from the State or the child's guardians.
“There was no one advocating for us,” she said of the time before the Guardian ad Litem started asking questions.
“She believed me when I said I was being abused.”
Pushing for Reform of the System
After she was adopted, it took a little time for Rhodes-Courter to adjust to being in a family. But because her adoptive parents practiced what they preached, kindness and cooperation, they gave her a positive idea of what relationships are supposed to be like, and how responsible adults behave.
“I think that makes the difference,” she said.
She believes the system could be made to move more quickly to find permanency for children. Rhodes-Courter said too many children linger for years in the system as birth parents fumble their opportunities to be reunited and professionals don't broaden their idea of what amounts to a healthy, loving family. On the other hand, she also believes that the resources available to birth parents should be more accessible. She said her own mother wasn't a bad person; she just lacked positive parenting models herself.
“If she had been given a fraction of the resources rather than foster parents who were abusing me, she may have kept the family together,” Rhodes-Courter said.
Additionally, she believes children should be allowed to play a more vocal part in deciding where and with whom they are to live.
Ultimately, though, she admits there isn't one single solution.
“There is no cookie cutter way to deal with child welfare,” she said.
Defying the Odds
Rhodes-Courter defied the odds in more way than one. She graduated from Ekerd College with a double major in communications and theater. She is currently working on her master's degree in social work from the University of Southern California's distance learning program.
“You go one way or another,” she said of kids emerging from the foster care system. “It breaks you or somehow makes you stronger. I think I was able to look around and have the sense that I want to be better than that, a sense of what not to do.”
Children and teens who age out of the system and are never placed with an adoptive family arrive into adulthood with even more odds stacked against them.
A 2010 University of Chicago study found that almost 25 percent of adults ages 23 to 24 who had aged out of foster care did not have a high school diploma or a GED. About 6 percent had a college degree of some kind. Less than half were employed when they were interviewed for the study.
For Rhodes-Courter, beating the odds came from a realization that she could do better with her life, but also from the support and love she received from her adoptive family.
“There are so many misconceptions about who foster and adoptive parents can be and who these kids are,” she said. “There truly is a kid out there for every family.”
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