Former Foster Child and MSW Graduate Shares Her Inspiring Journey to Authorship and Advocacy

USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck – Original Article

Ashley Rhodes-Courter, MSW ‘12, has charted an incredible journey from a childhood spent in foster care to a career dedicated to advocacy. This is her story.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter, a graduate of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is an author, speaker, mother, philanthropist and child welfare advocate. Drawing on her own experience as a child adopted from foster care, Rhodes-Courter holds a deep understanding of the unique challenges facing foster kids — and how best to help them.

USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work: When did you first enter the foster care system, and how has that experience come full circle for you?

Ashley Rhodes-Courter: As a child, I spent almost 10 years in foster care, bouncing around 14 different homes until I was finally adopted at the age of 12. I later learned that roughly a quarter of my caregivers were already, or eventually became, convicted felons as a result of problems with drugs, alcohol, violence or pedophilia. It was not the most ideal of circumstances, but I was able to find refuge at school. Even though I changed schools at least twice a year until 7th grade, I had teachers who encouraged me to remain dedicated to my academics.

No matter what happened, I always knew that I wanted to go to college. At age 12, I was adopted into a great family that also shared my passion for education and advocacy. I went to college and got my master’s degree in social work. Shortly after I finished my undergraduate degree, I also became a CASA volunteer — that’s short for Court Appointed Special Advocate. It’s our job to represent the best interests of foster children and make sure they don’t get lost in the system. I’ve spent my career fighting for systemic change to help other kids and families in high-risk, high-conflict situations.

Later, my husband and I became foster parents, giving homes to 25 children over the years. We’re no longer fostering, but we have two biological sons and one adopted child. Social workers speak often about the cycle of abuse, and that was definitely prevalent in my story. My mother was a single teenage mother who got pregnant while living in a group home in foster care. The cycle played out, and I ended up in foster care myself, but I was able to break that cycle. Instead of a cycle of abuse, we have a cycle of adoption. That mentality turns the horrible things I experienced into something positive.

USC: With your extensive experience both in the foster care system and as a foster parent and advocate, what do you think are the biggest misconceptions surrounding foster care?

ARC: There are so many preconceived notions about who these kids are and why they end up in foster care. But these kids aren’t damaged goods — they end up in the system because of egregious abuse and neglect. I want people to realize that they aren’t in the system because they’re juvenile delinquents. They need help like anybody else.

USC: When you were 24, you ran for state senate. Legislatively, have there been any movements to address these issues?

ARC: One of the most interesting pieces of my career is being a part of the process of systemic change. I’m very interested in policy and legislative reform, but I’m also an advocate — I firmly believe that policies are only as good as the people who are implementing them. Even though we have wonderful laws for children in care, nothing will change unless a dedicated effort is made to enforce those laws.

When I’m frustrated, I always go back to grassroots efforts. Grand gestures — even laws — aren’t always effective. We need to empower individuals to step up for their fellow human beings, and reassure people in service positions that we have their backs.

USC: How did pursuing your MSW impact your approach?

ARC: Because I was a foster child, I had this misconception that all social workers were caseworkers who worked with foster kids, because those were the only social workers I had come into contact with. So, it was eye-opening and exciting to see that the profession of social work extended far beyond that, to other jobs, roles, and expectations I hadn’t envisioned.

In undergrad, I double majored in Communications and Theater, with minors in Political Science and Psychology. I knew I was all over the place, but I was afraid of being pigeonholed. The social work degree embodied everything I wanted to do — there’s policy, public speaking, writing, community collaboration and team building. And there’s, of course, service to others, which is the backbone of the profession.

USC: You’ve written a book about your adolescence – what compelled you to put pen to paper and make your experiences public?

ARC: Despite my passion for education, I had been adopted so late that my parents didn’t have a college fund set aside for me. I knew I’d have to get to college somehow, so I started applying for scholarships, writing contests — anything that could help me go to school. The New York Times Magazine was holding a contest for young people to write about a life-changing day, so I wrote an essay about my adoption day.

My essay was called, “Three Little Words,” and it was about how my adoption day wasn’t rainbows and sunshine. It was pretty terrifying. I had seen kids be un-adopted and sent back. I didn’t believe in “happily ever after.” I had been so hurt and rejected in my life that it was difficult for me to conceptualize this sort of permanency — that this family could love me, or that I was even worth loving.

My essay won first place and was published in the magazine. Soon after that, publishers contacted me wanting to hear my full story. It was this unbelievable opportunity that fell in my lap as a teenager. I didn’t know how to write a book, but I also saw it as a remarkable opportunity to share a story that’s not often heard. I was amazed that the book I had started writing at age 17 became a New York Times bestseller, and now it’s being made into a movie. It feels insane.

USC: And what inspired you to pursue your second book?

ARC: I didn’t consciously set out to write a second book, but as I became a foster parent, people began to ask questions about my life today. As someone now on the other side, I wanted to shed light on the struggles and stories of foster kids, and give people a call to action. My second book, Three More Words, is another memoir — I talk about my struggles with mental health and the transition from a childhood of abuse and neglect to the independence of adulthood. Adoption isn’t the end of the story — it’s just the beginning of a whole new chapter.

Women’s Fund focuses on foster care during Fall Luncheon at UWL

News8000.com – Original Article

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – Dozens of people came together over lunch Thursday to celebrate the strength of local women.

The University of Wisconsin La Crosse hosted the annual Women’s Fund Fall Luncheon.

Rosalie Schnick received the 2017 Roberta Zurn Award during the luncheon which recognizes outstanding female leadership in our community.

This year’s luncheon focused on foster parenting with a key note speaker talking about her experiences growing up in the foster care program. The day’s speaker says moving our society forward starts with creating better care for our kids.

“A lot of these issues, and taking a greater look to what the needs of the community really are, particularly starting with children, it’s tremendous because it automatically has an unbelievable impact a whole society,” said speaker Ashley Rhodes-Courter.

The Women’s Fund is a nonprofit that helps enrich the lives of local women and girls so they can do the same for others.

New York Times bestselling author Ashley Rhodes-Courter to speak at St. Norbert College

The Daily News – Original Article

DE PERE, Wis. — St. Norbert College will welcome New York Times bestselling author Ashley Rhodes-Courter on campus at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 23.

Rhodes-Courter will speak about her life in the foster care system and where she is now. Her talk is based on her book “Three Little Words” and will take place in the Walter Theatre of the Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts, 315 Third St. in De Pere. The event is free and open to the public.

Rhodes-Courter spent almost a decade in the foster care system in 14 different homes before being adopted at the age of 12. Both “Three Little Words” and “Three More Words” are books about her experiences with the foster care system.

She is also the founder of the nonprofit Foundation for Sustainable Families, which provides services, education, organic food gardens and outreach for communities, foster and adoptive families, mothers, and children. She earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and theater from Eckerd College and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California.

Rhodes-Courter will be introduced by Judge Marc Hammer, part-time instructor of business administration at St. Norbert College. Hammer is a member of the Wisconsin State Bar Association and has served on the Brown County Circuit Court bench since 2008; he practiced law from 1989 to 2008, focused on civil litigations and family law matters.

Rhodes-Courter’s speaking engagement is hosted in partnership with the St. Norbert College Honors Program and Court Appointed Special Advocates of Brown County. CASA is a non-profit organization that provides a voice for abused and neglected children who are under the legal protection of the court system. Its vision is to ensure every child feels safe and secure in their home and heart.

The Honors Program at St. Norbert provides students of outstanding intellectual ability, high motivation and broad interests with a learning environment that maximizes their potential.

For more information, call Stacey Wanta at St. Norbert College at 920-403-3967 or email to stacey.wanta@snc.edu.

CASA Hosts 3rd Annual Superhero Breakfast

Watch Video: http://www.westernslopenow.com/news/local-news/casa-hosts-3rd-annual-superhero-breakfast/666622216

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo.- – Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) held their 3rd Annual Superhero Breakfast of Champions on Friday morning. The ceremony consisted of a special keynote speaker who explained her childhood story and how CASA played an impact in her life.

Over 300 people attended Friday morning’s breakfast, sponsored by roughly 20 businesses.

Everyday, foster children move from house to house across the nation, and as Ashley Rhodes-Courter, keynote speaker for the event, explained, it is who helps these children get through life’s obstacles that can make all the difference. Rhodes-Courter said, “the key component to resiliency is always one caring adult.”

Rhodes-Courter spent almost 10 years moving between 14 homes, including some abusive, through the foster care system before becoming adopted by the age of 12.

At the age of 7, she received a CASA volunteer who helped her get to where she is now. She explained, “I grew up to go to college and get a master’s degree in social work. I served as a CASA myself for many years prior to my husband and I becoming foster parents and now we’ve cared for over 25 foster kids.”

Local Executive Director of CASA invited Rhodes-Courter to speak at the Breakfast of Champions to not only explain how the agency benefited her, but to above all, notify the community how CASA changes lives.

Janet Rowland, Executive Director of CASA of Mesa County, said, “I think it’s important that people understand child protection issues and most of us don’t come across those things in our daily lives.” Rowland added, “this breakfast is an opportunity for average citizens to understand better the child protective system and the roll that the community can play in that system.”

Rhodes-Courter has also written two books about her life, “Three Little Words,” which became a New York Times Best Seller and is becoming a motion action picture, and “Three More Words.”

San Antonio Express-News: Luncheon speaker to share personal foster care experience

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Before she was a bestselling author, Ashley Rhodes-Courter realized the importance of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteers.

“I grew up in foster care myself,” Rhodes-Courter said. “When I was a child, I had a CASA volunteer who was instrumental in getting me out of foster care…. She was a shining light.”

Now, Rhodes-Courter plans to share her personal story with volunteers and supporters of CASA of West Texas at an upcoming luncheon and style show.

“It’s really important to speak to a CASA group,” Rhodes-Courter said. “They’re such thankless jobs. They’re volunteers, so none are paid. They’re dealing with children in foster care who can be abused, neglected or underfed.”

CASA of West Texas and the Kappa Alpha Theta Midland Alumnae Chapter are hosting the guest speaker Feb. 23 at Midland Country Club.

Nationally, CASA is the official philanthropy of Kappa Alpha Theta. Elizabeth Moore, president of the Greek organization’s local alumnae chapter, hopes the luncheon speaker will make an impact.

“We’re hoping to educate the audience about the importance of CASA,” Moore said. “People will realize the significance and how CASA helps people on a daily basis because they’re hearing her success story and how she was helped by CASA.”

The event benefiting CASA of West Texas will recognize Sylvia Chavez, associate judge of the Child Protection Court of the Permian Basin. Chavez said she’s grateful that CASA will acknowledge her work.

“I appreciate that this being the first annual luncheon, they would select me,” Chavez said. “I feel quite humbled by the honor.”

Chavez, who was appointed to her position in 2001 after working as a lawyer, has developed appreciation for CASA workers and volunteers.

“I handled cases when I was in private practice and had experience working with CASA volunteers,” Chavez said. “Once I started this position, I had more admiration and respect for the work they do.”

Kathy Harmon, volunteer recruiter and marketing specialist for CASA, said Chavez aligns with the luncheon theme: The Power of One.

“One person can be such a powerful voice,” Harmon said. “In our case, we’re honoring Judge Chavez, who has been such a significant voice for children in our courts and shows how significant one person can be. It goes also with our volunteers who make a powerful difference in children’s lives.”

Want to go?

Power of One Luncheon and Children’s Style Show, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Feb. 23 at Midland Country Club.

For information on tickets, call 683-111 4 or visit casawtx.org.

The luncheon will include a style show featuring children’s clothing from Dillard’s and Kenzington’s Kloset, a children’s store in Odessa.

Rhodes-Courter will be available to sign copies of her two memoirs, “Three Little Words” and “Three More Words.” She tells her story through books and speaking engagements to give a voice to others who have been in the foster care system.

“It’s in part because not a lot of former foster kids do this,” Rhodes-Courter said. “Many end up homeless, addicted to drugs, teen parents or even dead. I’ve been blessed in my life and want to encourage people to take a chance on these kids.”

Harmon, who first heard Rhodes-Courter speak at a National CASA Association conference, hopes West Texans will appreciate the message. She thinks the event will highlight the need to help children locally.

“We want to honor the judge and bring awareness to the community about child abuse and other challenges children face,” Harmon said. “With the speaker, we show the resilience children have.”

The Detroit News: Society – Circle of Friends event benefits CARE House

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There’s something very cool about receiving an invitation to dinner at Tiffany & Co. Well, it wasn’t actually dinner, but a small group of people was invited to the iconic luxury jewelry store for a preview party benefiting CARE House of Oakland County. The 21st annual Circle of Friends event took place on Thursday, kicking off with the cocktail reception at Tiffany & Co. the night before.

About 50 people gathered at the store inside Somerset Collection on Wednesday for the preview event. Plum Market served up wine and champagne with trays of ahi tuna bites, a basil pesto cucumber aperitif, chèvre, date and pecan bites, and curry chicken tarts. Dynamic speaker, author and child welfare advocate Ashley Rhodes-Courter, who was a foster child, addressed the crowd, speaking about some of her experiences in the system.

The lunch the next day was at the Townsend Hotel with 250 guests. Event proceeds support CARE House’s intervention and therapeutic services, advocacy, education and prevention programs, including its Court Appointed Special Advocates program. The CASA program annually assists 100 neglected and abused children who are wards of the Oakland County Circuit Court. It trains, teaches and supports volunteer advocates who are court-appointed to child neglect cases. She spoke of her amazing journey through 14 homes in 10 years as a young girl in the foster care system and her life-changing adoption and education.

“One person can make a difference in a child’s life,” said Rhodes-Courter, who is also a foster and adoptive parent. “I’ve witnessed firsthand what a CASA advocate means to a kid when they’re at a point of vulnerability and loss of hope.” She is the author of the book “Three Little Words.”

One of the CARE House board members, Tamara Rambus, who was chair of this year’s Circle of Friends luncheon, told her story of serving as a foster parent as part of her introduction to Ashley. It was powerful and poignant.

Ticket prices for the Circle of Friends benefit started at $120 and included lunch and a copy of Rhodes-Courter’s book, “Three Little Words.”

Chuck Bennett is the creator of TheSocialMetro.com and is the Fox 2 News Style Ambassador.

Oakland Press: CARE House to hold luncheon to benefit foster child advocacy efforts

The CARE House of Oakland County on Thursday will hold its annual Circle of Friends Luncheon at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham.

The event, slated for Thursday, Jan. 26, will feature comments from Ashley Rhodes-Courter, speaker, author and child welfare advocate, about her life and struggle in the foster care system.

The nonprofit, located at 44765 Woodward Ave. in Pontiac, works to intervene and prevent child neglect and abuse in the foster care and adoption system.

• Proceeds from the event will go to benefit the CARE House’s intervention and therapeutic services, education and prevention programs and advocacy programs such as the Court Appointed Special Advocates program.

• The special advocates work with about 100 neglected and abused kids annually who are of the Oakland County Circuit Court – Family Division, according to a release. They work as activists, mentors and friends to the children while receiving training on how to do so.

• The event will also honor retiring Oakland County Circuit Judge Joan E. Young.

Rhodes-Courter, who will speak at the event, was in foster care for 10 years as a child living in 14 different foster homes.

“About 25 percent of my foster parents were, or became convicted felons. It wasn’t ideal as a young child, I was exposed to abuse and neglect,” Rhodes-Courter said. “A lot of people will look at my story and say ‘it’s different now’ but we became foster parents ourselves, 25 kids in a five year span, and their stories show us there is still ample work to be done.”

About 13,000 children are in foster care in Michigan at any point in time, Rhodes-Courter said.

“I think that people don’t want to believe that there are children that are hungry or abused or even dying in their own community, but we’re also in an age where information is so accessible…you read about this or that agency but if you look past the headline, you can see a lot of those (support groups for children in foster care) don’t exist anymore…That’s why it’s important to get involved at the grass roots level. It won’t get better unless we take a community approach,” Rhodes-Courter said.

As a child of the foster care system, an adoptive parent and foster parent herself, Rhodes-Courter said that supporting the children of foster care is critical to breaking the cycle of generational poverty.

“If we don’t deal with them now then we’ll deal with the when they’re on welfare. A huge percentage of foster kids become teen moms, are roped into sex trafficking. They perpetuate the abuse, they become homeless. They don’t just magically go away. If we’re not investing in these kids now their outcomes are detrimental to our communities…we have to stop the cycle somewhere,” Rhodes-Courter said.

Rhodes-Courter is the author of two books about her experiences with foster care, “Three Little Words” about her time as a child in the system and “Three More Words” about her experience as an adult working with foster children and life after foster care.

Tickets for the event start at $120 and include a copy of “Three Little Words” as well as entrance to a book signing after the lunch. Circle of Friends takes place at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 26 at The Townsend Hotel, 100 Townsend St. in Birmingham.

Brantford Expositor: Moving Us Forward program helps foster kids

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The image of foster kids stuffing their belongings into garbage bags inspired Laurier Brantford social work students to develop a new campaign, says associate professor Nancy Freymond.

“It started with an autobiography our class was reading called, “Three Little Words: A Memoir” by Ashley Rhodes-Courter,” said Freymond. “The author tells the story of having to move 14 times as a foster child and each time being handed a garbage bag to pack up her belongings. Those garbage bags became symbolic, representing her growing sense of worthlessness.” Continue reading