CASA volunteers may be the most inconspicuous heroes in our society. The voices of often silenced foster children, CASA (court-appointed special advocates) volunteers are crucial players in the child dependency system. Santa Barbara County CASA recently swore in 14 new volunteers, whose responsibilities include spending an hour a week with the child and communicating with doctors, attorneys, and educators. But not every foster child is fortunate enough to have a CASA. This year, CASA is serving 318 of the neediest of approximately 400 children in the welfare system. By 2018, CASA Executive Director Kim Davis said CASA hopes to advocate for 100 percent of the foster kids in the county.
For longtime foster child Ashley Rhodes-Courter, her CASA was the person who believed her abuse stories and removed her from the seemingly boundless cycle. Rhodes-Courter spent nearly a decade living in 14 foster homes. In one home, she was forced into a trailer with 16 others, starved, beaten with a paddle, and even forced to swallow hot sauce. But everything changed on January 28, 1998, her adoption day. Rhodes-Courter sat in court between her “old family” and her new one, and the judge asked her if he should sign the adoption papers. Skeptical and petrified, she murmured: “I guess so.”
Now 28 years old, Rhodes-Courter and her husband joke about being the new face of foster parents. But it’s hardly a laugh. With a degree in social services and a national advocate for child welfare (she spoke to Congress at age 14), she travels internationally and shares her experience to fight for those still suffering. In college, she penned the New York Times best seller Three Little Words, and her story is currently in production to be made into a motion picture expected to star Reese Witherspoon and Amanda Seyfried.
Rhodes-Courter is coming to town to be the keynote speaker at CASA by the Sea at the Bacara on April 6. Prior to her visit, Rhodes-Courter spoke to the Santa Barbara Independent about her experience in the broken system through various lenses: a foster child, CASA advocate, social worker, and now as a foster parent. (She and her husband recently took in three little foster girls. She also has two little kids — one adopted and one biological — and she is expecting a third.)
What are some misconceptions about the foster care system?
I think a lot of people think foster care must be for delinquent kids, or kids who have problems, but that’s really not the case. We’ve had kids who are 3 months old to 3 years old. All of our children are so different. Domestic violence, homelessness, and sexual abuse, there are horrible cases, and these kids just need someone to step up and intervene and try to be a positive mentor for them.
There’s also this notion that all foster parents just do it for the money. My husband and I joke about wanting to be the new faces of foster parents. People who genuinely want to help other people. I came to this calling because of my experience and I had a horrible experience. I wanted to provide something different for my kids. But we’ve met tons of incredible foster and adoptive parents; you rarely here those stories. You hear about the horrible stories. I think it’s important to know that foster parents can be amazing people. Foster kids are super kids. The reality is we need so many more foster parents. It is draining. It’s an emotional task.
What role does CASA play?
CASA plays a critical role in the dependency system. Something that is also news to people who don’t know much about the system is that that every person in the case is sort of obligated to somebody else. The case managers are beholden to the agency, which is beholden to the state. The attorneys are representing the biological parents and the law, which is on the side of reunification. Everybody kind of has a hidden agenda and we’ve even had case workers say, “Oh I can’t present that to the judge, I have other cases in this court and I don’t want to ruffle any feathers.” CASA comes in as the best interest of the child. They are not beholden to the biological parents or the state. Nobody but the child. It gives the judge the ability to see what the perspective is. A caseworker may not necessarily rat out a crummy foster parent because that makes more cases for them.
When I was younger, I was living in this home that had 16 kids sharing two bedrooms and a trailer, my CASA came in and said this is unacceptable. But the case manager had said this is one of our best foster homes, they take the kids that no one else wants. It was just this pool of corruption. Mary Miller, who was my CASA, was the only one who said this is unacceptable.
My CASA was the only one who was willing to believe me when I said I was being abused. It was my CASA who made sure I was going to dental appointment, get a haircut, and had school supplies. These very basic functions. Then also fighting for me in court and telling the court….It is a volunteer position. Mary didn’t come into my life earlier because there was a hierarchy on cases, more shortage back then.
Why do certain cases get picked over others?
In Florida, they just changed the law. It used to be that just certain professions were mandated reporters. Now it’s the law that all citizens are technically mandated reporters. But that doesn’t always happen. It’s another one of these lovely laws that looks good on paper.
One thing that you can do is call the abuse hotline. Every state has one. Some states allow you to be anonymous. All you can do is report it and hope someone follows through. Aside from that, your hands are tied.
You get both ends of the spectrum. You get kids being removed for the most ridiculous reasons. And you get parents who are heroin addicts being abused time after time after time. You see it all.
Are parents in legal trouble if they lose their parental rights and have their kids taken away from them?
The process is different for every case. If a child is removed, the child has to go into foster care, the parent can be given with is called a case plan. If the case eventually moves to termination — which sadly it doesn’t happen as much as it should — the parents then just can either fight it or petition. Then all of their dirty laundry is aired out. If it’s looking like the state is going to be in favor of termination, the attorneys generally sit down with the biological parents and say look here’s what’s going to happen.
In the cases we’ve seen, they really try to do mediation or a very blunt conversation with the parent. In the instance of physical abuse or severe drug abuse, the parents just sign a piece of paper and there are no other legal repercussions.
How is the foster care system different in Florida from California?
There’s definitely not a lot of uniformity across the country. There are definitely some more progressive states and I think California is one of them. I think that’s one of the problems with the system is that there is no uniformity. There is no vehicle for communication amongst all of the different programs. It takes organizations and groups to put on conferences.
Over the years I’ve seen a lot of regulations occur on the federal level and on the local level. But the problem at the end of the day is these laws and changes are only as good as the people implementing them. So even a state like Florida that gets a lot of heat in the media, we do have great laws in place.
What are your plans from here? My first book ended when I started college. My second book is all about going to college, meeting my husband, and seeing my biological mother. Questions I get asked all of the time — but also being a foster parents. When I graduated, I became a CASA for a few years before I became a foster parent. All of these experiences, the first book is being made into a movie. Who knows what’s going to happen with that.
How was reconnecting with your biological mother?
I sort of tread lightly with all of my biological family. When I started having my own children, I started treading lighting, I definitely don’t want them exposed to any kind of drama or chaos, so I’m careful with any relationship I have. My biological sister is a teenager now, and I’m always there for her. Nobody could ever have too many people who care about them. I’m definitely not feeling as beholden or ashamed or indebted to this idea of family that I once had. I learned that relationships come from all kinds of places. You don’t have to be related to people to change you. I call a lot of people family who I don’t’ have a single strand of DNA in common. And that’s just the way it is. Unfortunately, I see a lot of biological family totally take advantage of our kids. It’s a hard lesson that we try to teach all of our children.
How did you come up with the title for your first book?
My essay was called “Three Little Words,” around that time I had watched my adoption video. After it was published, my editors contacted me asking to hear my full story. It’s kind of this crazy opportunity you can’t say no to. It was all based on my adoption day. It wasn’t just rainbows and sunshine. It was terrifying. Having this raw truth in the essay, people are interested in this? My story could help other people? It wasn’t anything new to me, but to other people it was so eye opening and inspiring, help reinforce those who are in the system who are doing a good job. This was just hopefully a way to reinforce positive work.
What do plan to share while you’re in Santa Barbara?
I want people to know how important CASA is and raise them for what they do. It’s a volunteer gig and it’s so thankless and so frustrating and so crazy sometimes, but they are changing lives. Sometimes it’s pretty bleak.
Ashley Rhodes-Courter will be the keynote speaker Sunday, April 6, at CASA by the Sea’s fundraising event held at the Bacara, 8301 Hollister Ave. For info and tickets, visit sbcasa.org.