Ashley-RC-Headshot-1-1The final straw for Ashley Rhodes-Courter was the “gag order” mandating that she not speak publicly about the gruesome murder of her former foster child, Jenica Randazzo.

For much of her 29 years of life, Ashley courageously spoke up when witnessing wrongs, a trait fine-tuned during the tumultuous nine years she spent in foster care herself. Born to a single teen mom, Ashley went into Florida’s foster care system at age three and was shuffled through 44 caseworkers and 14 foster homes   ̶  some horribly abusive   ̶  before being adopted out of a group home at the age of 12.

Abused in Florida’s Foster Care System

Even though it happened 15 years ago, she clearly remembers seeing the mug shots of two of her former foster parents, Charles and Marjorie Moss, on the evening news. Hillsborough County deputies arrested the Mosses in May 2000 on 40 felony child abuse and neglect charges. Marjorie Moss was accused of punching and beating children, locking them outside for hours without water or food, holding children’s heads under water, and threatening them with guns.

“I knew so many kids who had lived in that home,” recalled Ashley, who spent six months with the Mosses. “I also knew I had to come forward to bring additional credibility to the stories of abuse being shared by the children.”

Ashley tried to warn caseworkers as early as 1993 about abusive conditions in the home. At the time, other children who lived there were afraid to verify Ashley’s complaints. As chronicled in her New York Times bestselling memoir Three Little Words, the Mosses appeared to be skilled at concealing the abuse. Eventually, Ashley was removed from the home and “branded a trouble-maker for speaking up.”

An Advocate is Born

threemorewordsThe experience, however, did not silence her. In fact, it sowed the seeds of advocacy that would bloom more with each passing year.

Her determination to bring justice for the dozens of children who lived in the Mosses home has expanded to advocating for systemic changes that ensure the safety and well-being of more than 400,000 children in foster care throughout the United States.

Her recently published second memoir, Three More Words, chronicles what happened to the little girl in foster care who no one would listen to, and how she overcame the incredible odds stacked against her. Ashley graduated from college with honors and earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work. She then married Erick Smith, became a mother and together they fostered more than 20 children.

Her experiences as a foster parent in Florida’s Tampa Bay area are perhaps the most gut-wrenching pages of her new book.

Foster Care Hasn’t Changed Much

“Many people assume that since so much time has passed since I was in foster care that things are much different for foster children today,” noted Ashley. “My experience as a foster parent shows that while there have been great strides in new child welfare laws and policies, they’re only as good as the people and agencies implementing them. A lot of the same mistakes are being made as when I was in care.”

Ashley believes the best interests of the child are still being overlooked and even completely ignored.

“The child welfare pendulum has swung too far in the direction of favoring the rights of parents and blood relatives,” she stated. “Children are being left in questionable home environments or they are being reunified prematurely with parents or caregivers who truly aren’t stable. These errors can be fatal.”

Her Worst Nightmare

Ashley and Erick’s worst nightmare as foster parents came true in February 2015 when they learned from a newspaper article that a former foster child had been beaten to death allegedly by her (reported) schizophrenic uncle. Her grandmother also died in the attack. The girl who was called “Millie” in Three More Words is actually Jenica Randazzo.

“The foster care system absolutely failed this child,” stated Ashley. “For an entire year before Jenica came to our home, there were many child welfare professionals who concluded Jenica would be better off with a non-relative adoptive family.”

In fact, according to Ashley, Jenica left Ashley’s home for a pre-adoptive placement with a family eager to make her one of their own.

Case managers reunified Jenica, instead, with her maternal grandparents. Did the plan for Jenica take a 180-degree turn, and, if changed, did it occur with the introduction of a new case manager or contracted case management agency?

Questions about Transparency

Representatives with Eckerd Community Alternatives, the lead community based care agency, reviewed their handling of Jenica’s case, and said to the media on multiple occasions, “There were no indications that could have predicted this tragic outcome.”

“The lead agency involved here isn’t unlike other child welfare authorities, including DCF, who use scripted talking points to blame tragic outcomes on unforeseen developments,” said Roy Miller, president of American Children’s Campaign, a statewide advocacy group with a long track record of insisting on child welfare improvements. “Those representations, however, rarely hold up upon further scrutiny of the case by independent advocates and child protection professionals.”

Heavily Redacted Case Notesjenicacasenotesvertical

Case notes made available to the public appear to suggest Jenica was therapeutically separated from some siblings for a time in foster care and, in some accounts, a caseworker and a guardian ad litem remained against any contact between Jenica and her maternal grandparents.

It is also difficult to discern how the maternal grandparents’ home, described as putting Jenica in “substantial and immediate harm” in 2012, was suddenly acceptable in 2014   ̶  especially since it was still described as “chaotic” and occasionally lacked electricity and running water.

Published reports state that siblings were still being told to lie when asked if they were sleeping together, and that “some of the young children were touching each other inappropriately.” This risk was especially noteworthy considering there were at least three adults (or possibly more) and four children living in the modest four-bedroom home.

The Miami Herald asked very pointed questions following the release of Jenica’s case file. According to the Herald, the case documents raise more questions than they answer.

These answers could be provided by a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team report (CIRRT) if one were requested. One reform passed in the 2015 legislative session, via SB 7078, provides the Florida DCF Secretary expanded discretion to assign cases to CIRRT. While significant time has elapsed since Jenica Randazzo’s death, getting answers to the outstanding questions would appear to be of utmost importance, especially considering that information and transparency would improve protections for children also at risk throughout the child welfare system.

“We urged passage of the legislative change with these very situations in mind,” said Miller. “We learned through the CIRRT investigation into Phoebe Jonchuck’s death, a child in the same child welfare circuit, who also died in a horrific manner at the hands of a relative (her father), that CIRRT reports are instrumental in bringing about needed insight and subsequent changes.”

A “Gag Order” Adds Insult to Injury

Perhaps just as shocking as Jenica’s murder was the way local child welfare professionals treated Ashley and Erick following her death. Rather than being given support for their grief or traumatic loss counseling, the couple says they received emails, voicemails and texts advising them to discontinue speaking with the media. Ashley and Erick were also told not to attend Jenica’s funeral.

A newly created “Partnership Development Plan” was delivered instead by a program manager with Carlton Manor. This amended Plan was more restrictive than the standard confidentiality agreements or typical paperwork, and essentially served as a ”gag order”. According to the Plan, the few interviews Ashley and Erick gave local media, showing them tearfully mourning their former foster child, were in “violation of Carlton Manor Policies, Florida Statute 415.513(2) and the contract that Carlton Manor has with Eckerd Community Alternatives.” Failure to sign the new plan was grounds for closing Ashley and Erick’s foster home.

Yet, according to Andrea Lobert Moore, attorney for Ashley and Erick, no confidentiality was breeched, and the Partnership Development Plan would “constitute a gag order for the couple on speaking about anything related to child welfare. Further, it would have required Ashley and Erick to admit they violated a confidentiality agreement when no legal violations had taken place.” Mrs. Moore advised against signing the plan.

“The plan had arbitrary, capricious and overbroad restrictions that would silence the very advocacy work that been a hallmark of Ashley’s career. Taken at face value, the couple would be prohibited from even speaking of Jenica to each other without subjecting themselves to threatened legal action or being charged with a misdemeanor,” stated Moore.

Ashley and Erick decided to give back their foster parent license rather than be constrained by the gag order, or have their license formally revoked, which could hinder them from ever adopting or fostering in the future.

The girl who was abused in foster care has grown up to become a woman who refused to be pushed around again by the same system.

“Someone needs to demand answers for Jenica. I don’t want the truth of what happened to remain buried with her body,” said Ashley.

More information about Jenica Randazzo can be found at the Justice for Jenica section on Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s website.

Click here to read part two of this story

 

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