An Interview with Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Ashley Rhodes-Courter is a Foster Care advocate and the author if the books, Three Little Words and Three More Words. These memoirs tell of her experience, first as a foster child and then as a foster parent. Ashley Rhodes-Courter has been featured in Teen People, the New York Times, USA Today, and Glamour, as well as on Good Morning America. Her first memoir began as an essay, which won a writing contest for high school students, and was published in the New York Times Magazine. A recent graduate of Eckerd College and a champion for the reformation of the foster care system, Ashley speaks internationally on foster care and adoption. Visit her at Rhodes-Courter.com.

First of all, could you give away the ending of your book, Three Little Words, by telling us what the three little words are?
When people ask me, "What are the three little words in your first book," I jokingly reply, "Read. The. Book."  In truth, the three little words were, "I guess so." Those are the words I uttered to the judge on my adoption day at the age of 12.  I had spent nearly a decade in foster care and had horribly abusive situations, so I didn't believe in Happily Ever Afters at that time. 

What can social workers and potential foster or adoptive parents get out of your book, Three More Words?
"Three More Words" discusses my life AFTER foster care. My first book ends when I graduate high school, but I'm now 31 years old and a lot has happened since then!  In writing my second book, I wanted to answer questions readers had from the first book, discuss where my relationships stand, and inspire professionals in the work that they do with children. I went on to get my Master's Degree in social work, and become a foster and adoptive parent. My husband and I have cared for more than 25 children.  It is amazingly rewarding, but it shows that the need for safe homes and strong voices to protect children is stronger than ever.  My story may have happened many years ago, but we saw the same mistakes happening again and again as foster parents.

What compels you to go on speaking tours and tell your story?
Like many social workers, I wear multiple hats and have several jobs. At home, I run a non-profit organization (The Foundation for Sustainable Families, www.SustainableFamiliesFoundation.org) and a small mental health and social service agency (Sustainable Family Services, www.SustainableFamilyServices.com).  On the side, I am a motivational speaker and give lectures on Leadership, overcoming adversity, resiliency, and other topics.  I try to use my personal story to help others overcome their hardships and become successful, despite whatever obstacles they may be facing in their academic, personal, or professional lives.

Is it difficult to go back in time and write about the past?
Writing has always been a very therapeutic outlet for me. The hardest part comes when people read your material and impose or project their own feelings about it.  Speaking about child abuse and neglect also is not easy.  That being said, I constantly remind myself how very fortunate I am to have a platform and the opportunity to share, inspire, and create change.

How do you feel when you finish a book?
When you're writing a memoir, it is difficult to ever really feel "finished."  These stories are my real life, which changes and evolves every day. Unlike fiction, nothing is really set in stone with these books. Instead, they are merely screen shots of what was happening at a particular time in my life.  Other writers (like Professors or scholars) may have multiple and updated versions of their texts. With a memoir and depending on your publisher, you don't necessarily get that luxury.  That is always very intimidating.

What happened when you turned eighteen? Were you on your own?
I spent almost ten years in foster care as a child, but I was adopted from a Children's Home when I was 12.  I remained in my adoptive family until I moved out to go to college. I worked really hard to receive scholarships that helped cover my tuition and dorm.  While in college I applied myself academically, held several jobs, and with the same determination I had as a child, I've been able to remain and live independently since then.

What legislation would you propose to improve the lives of foster children when they are in care, or after they turn eighteen?
In my experiences, success for young people is going to go so far beyond legislation. Rules, policies, and laws are only as good as the people who are implementing them, and the individuals who actually have the skills, tools, and ability to access them.  Though there is room for more, there are already laws and programs in place in many States to help youth in care. Ultimately, children need families and support systems, not programs.  Creating positive outcomes will be a grassroots effort in identifying and connecting youth with people and resources that can help them thrive and survive. Legislation can't invite you over for the Holidays, give you advice as you become a parent, or help you navigate the day-to-day struggles of even the most normal of lives.

What should teachers know about foster students?
Schools were a sanctuary for me. I had teachers that saved my life in many ways.  We do a lot of training in the education system to help educators navigate the complex issues that surround children who have been victims of abuse, neglect, or trauma.  No child ever enters foster care by fault of their own. I hope that teachers realize how much power they have to make a life-long and profound impact on a child by giving encouragement, opportunity, and kindness to a child.

Tell us what Three More Words means so that we don’t have to buy the book.
I still think people should read the books (they can even be checked out for free at most public or school libraries), but essentially "Three Little Words" catches readers off guard because the assumption is that the three little words will be "I love you."  So the first book deals with my hesitation to accept love as a child traumatized by my horrific experiences in foster care; while my second book is a full circle story of healing and how I learned to embrace love in many forms and give back to my community.

Hillary Clinton is among your fans. What was her reaction to your story?
Hillary Clinton has had a long career advocating and fighting for the rights of children, especially those involved in the child welfare system.  In my teens, I was invited to the White House twice and felt honored to have my story and voice heard by those with the power to create change for kids like me. There's a picture of one of my visits in the back of the first book.

How did biological family members affect your life after you were adopted?
I was not in touch with my birth mother until many years after I had been adopted.  My birth family has had their own circumstances that created chaos in their lives. My mother and all of her siblings were also raised in foster care.  We have had years where we haven't spoken, and times where there have been laughs.  I've had the consistency of my adoptive family the entire time, for which I am grateful.  

How do you interact with the birth parents? Is that ever tense?
Interactions with birth family can often be tense or awkward.  The key is to always surround yourself with people (related by DNA or not!) who are going to progress your life in a positive way and create happiness and support. If any relationships with family, friends, or colleagues are toxic or repeatedly stressful in any way, you have to find the strength to walk away and remove that person from your life.

What are you going to do that same/differently as compared to your experiences as a child?
In many ways, I am still the same determined advocate I was as a child.  My personal experiences have shaped the person that I am today, and I had to make the conscious choice to not let my past cripple my future. Finding positive outlets, create a solid support system, making good choices, and seeking help (professional or otherwise) when necessary is essential to surviving and thriving.

Have you ever had to deal with relinquishment as a foster/adoptive parent?
In "Three More Words" we talk about our experiences as foster parents. Our eldest child is adopted from foster care, but many more of our children were sent back to parents, to relatives, or had other outcomes.  It was devastating and traumatic when children were placed back in dangerous situations, despite our best efforts to advocate for them.  As a foster parent, we were powerless to stop the decisions being made and that was very frustrating.  I try to encourage advocates and parents to not simply give up entirely in these moments. The burnout and turn over rate for foster parents and child welfare professionals is often quite high. Instead, I hope that people will redirect their passion in some other way. Though we are no longer foster parents, we take much pride in serving children in need through our non-profit, The Foundation for Sustainable Families, and direct service agency, Sustainable Family Services. 

My daughter is a former foster child that we adopted. Do you have any advice for her?
I hope that you will have the opportunity to share my books together and have meaningful discussions together. Mostly, I hope that she has an opportunity to be inspired by the many former foster or adopted youth who have gone on to do amazing things.  Our beginnings don't define our how our endings play out.