IMG_9167Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s life came full circle five years ago when she and her husband Erick became foster parents in Florida’s Tampa Bay area.  Ashley, a New York Times best-selling author of two books – Three Little Words and Three More Words respectively – had spent nearly 10 years in foster care before her adoption at age 12.  Part One of this series described why Ashley and Erick surrendered their foster parent license, rather than sign a “gag order” that would have prevented them from speaking publicly about the gruesome murder of a former foster child.

Foster Parents Still Disrespected

Perhaps the most surprising part of being a foster parent for Ashley was the lack of respect foster parents must still endure – despite Tampa Bay’s “Fostering Respect Hotline” or Florida’s “Quality Parenting Initiative” to correct this problem. Although foster parents are promised to be treated as partners, she found the opposite to be true. Especially when voicing safety concerns to child welfare professionals about case management decisions.

“Out of all the people touching these children’s lives, foster parents are the ones who spend the most time with them. Yet, our concerns were often ignored by case managers and sometimes even the courts,” stated Ashley, who also holds a master’s degree in social work. “Although I speak and consult all over the country on child welfare issues, in my own backyard we were told time and again to sit down and not speak while bad judgment calls were being made.”

Jenica in Ashley's home

Jenica in Ashley’s home

A good part of Ashley’s latest book opens a window into the difficult circumstances that bring children into foster care and troubling case management decisions. The most tragic part of the book may be the death of “Millie” who was actually Jenica Randazzo, a former Tampa Bay area foster child.

“For an entire year so many people warned the child welfare agencies involved that Jenica would’ve been better off with a non-relative adoption. She could have had a very different outcome if serious red flags were not ignored,” Ashley stated.

However, Jenica is not the only child Ashley believes was returned to an unstable or risky home environment. She writes extensively about a 2-year old foster child who had been raped repeatedly since she was six-months old by men in the biological mother’s life.

“I remember sitting in meetings with the little girl’s mom, who thought it was ‘not such a big deal’ that her daughter had been raped or had multiple sexually transmitted diseases,” Ashley recalled. “We were completely powerless to stop this premature reunification as well.”

Not a day goes by that she does not think about that little girl or Jenica.

“While I know there are many good case workers and foster parents locally and nationally, the sad reality is there aren’t enough of them,” Ashley explained. “Some stick around at all costs, and they’re truly heroes. But so many of the good ones tend to burn out really quickly.”

Put the Child Back into Child Welfare

Ashley believes the foster children themselves actually have the fewest rights of all in the dependency court process. She points to an entrenched bias throughout the system that kids thrive better with their families and siblings “no matter what.” Anyone who feels or advocates differently, who doesn’t stay quiet like a good little soldier, is “treated like the enemy.”

22727_10153446670649305_5994311513655386666_n“Children are often treated like they’re the property of biological parents and are shuffled around at the whim of workers and even foster parents “she said. “There is no cookie-cutter way to approach these cases. Not all children are safe with their families, not all parents can be rehabilitated, and not all siblings belong or are safe together.”

Not all foster homes are better than group homes either, according to Ashley. Although public dialogue is intensifying about the role of group homes, she believes it would be a mistake to eradicate them completely, especially in today’s foster care environment.

“Many group homes provide a level of highly specialized care with therapies, schooling, medical care and unparalleled specialty services for pregnant teens and large sibling groups that cannot be duplicated in foster homes,” noted Ashley.

Children Still Languishing in Care

Another significant child welfare issue, according to Ashley, is the length of time children spend in foster care. Although progress has been made, more than 67,000 of approximately 400,000 children in foster care in the United States remain for longer than three years. In Florida, only 46% of children exit foster care to a permanent home within 12 months of entering care.

“Unfortunately, spending significant chunks of your childhood in foster care is still not unusual today,” stated Ashley, who spent nearly 10 years in foster care. “To a foster child, even a year can seem like a lifetime.”

Ashley believes more diligent searches for relatives could shorten foster care stays, as well as quicker decisions in terminating parental rights.

“The child welfare system still does a poor job in expeditiously severing parental ties when it is needed,” noted Ashley. “Policymakers need to impose even stricter time limits stipulating how long children can remain in foster care before a parent’s rights are terminated and children become available for adoption.”

An Epic Failure of the Tampa Bay Child Welfare System

Ashley points to Davion Only as a public example of how children, especially teens, can languish in foster care. Much like Ashley, 16-year old Davion grew up in foster care.

abc-world-news-tonight“I’ll take anyone,” Davion reportedly said before a Florida congregation in October 2013. “Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don’t care.”

His plea for a family to adopt him went viral, and over 10,000 adoption inquiries flooded into Eckerd Community Alternatives, the lead agency overseeing his care. ABC World News Tonight named him their “Person of the Week.” Jenny McCarthy from The View television show coined the term, “The Davion Effect” to describe the overwhelming outpouring of interest in adopting foster children.

Yet, despite the international media attention and thousands of adoption inquiries, Davion did not find a forever family until he took matters into his own hands. Two years after the media storm, he phoned a former caseworker, who agreed to his request to adopt him. Despite this happy ending for Davion, Ashley believes the Tampa Bay child welfare system’s handling of this case was an epic failure from start to finish.

“Really? Ten thousand calls and they still couldn’t help him,” she said. “No child should grow up in foster care.”

Changing the Child Welfare System from the Outside

Although Ashley wanted to make a difference by working within the system as a foster parent, she realizes her advocacy as a survivor of the system and former foster parent gives her a unique voice. It also allows her to impact thousands more children’s lives. She hopes the experiences she shares in her books and through her advocacy will inspire others to rally for needed improvements to the child welfare system.

“It’s not enough to complain about something if you aren’t willing to be part of the solution, stated Ashley. “That’s why I’ve committed myself to using my story to bring more awareness to the changes that are needed.”

To learn more or join American Children’s Campaign advocacy efforts, please visit the Take Action Center today.  You can also learn more about the Justice for Jenica campaign on Ashley’s website.

Click here to read part one of this story


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