"Sunshine, you're my baby and I'm your only mother. You must mind the one taking care of you, but she's not your mama." Ashley Rhodes-Courter spent nine years of her life in fourteen different foster homes, living by those words. As her mother spirals out of control, Ashley is left clinging to an unpredictable, dissolving relationship, all the while getting pulled deeper and deeper into the foster care system.
Painful memories of being taken away from her home quickly become consumed by real-life horrors, where Ashley is juggled between caseworkers, shuffled from school to school, and forced to endure manipulative, humiliating treatment from a very abusive foster family. In this inspiring, unforgettable memoir, Ashley finds the courage to succeed - and in doing so, discovers the power of her own voice.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
the day they stole my mother from me
Two days compete for the worst day in my life: The first is the day I was taken from my mother; the second is the day I arrived at the Mosses' foster home four years later. Three weeks before I lost my mother, I had left South Carolina bound for Florida with her, her husband, and my brother. I was three and a half years old and remember lying on the backseat watching slippery raindrops making patterns as they plopped down the car's windows.
My infant brother, Luke, was in a car seat, which nobody had bothered to belt in, so it squished me into the door when his father took a sharp turn. Luke had a heart monitor, but it must not have been on him all the time because I remember using it on my favorite toy: a Teddy Ruxpin bear.
Until Dustin Grover came along, we shared a trailer with my mother's twin sister, Leanne, who had dropped out of school to help support me. Even though the twins looked completely different, they were interchangeable to me since Aunt Leanne spent almost as much time with me as my mother, and I never minded when one left and the other took over. I loved to nestle by Aunt Leanne's side. She would rake my curls with her fingers while talking on the phone to her friends.
My mother was only seventeen when she gave birth to me. If she and my aunt were anything like most teenagers, they probably were more interested in hanging out with friends than changing diapers. Nevertheless, they worked different shifts and took turns caring for me. Their trailer became the local hangout because there was no adult supervision.
"Turn that down," my mother yelled one afternoon. I was watching cartoons, trying to drown out the teen voices by raising the volume higher and higher. "I said, turn that down!"
"Well, if you would shut the hell up, I could hear the damn TV," I said. My mother and her friends burst out laughing.
I was an intuitive two-year-old soaking up language and behaviors from a crew of rowdy adolescents who were trying on adult attitudes and habits. I got attention by acting grown up, and my mother bragged about how early I was toilet trained and how clearly I spoke.
My mother had a carefree attitude. She was too self-absorbed to fuss about my safety. Although she always strapped me in my car seat, her battered truck did not have seat belts. Driving down a bumpy South Carolina road, the unlocked door popped open. I tumbled out, rolling a few times before landing on the shoulder. My mother turned the truck around and found me waving at her. I was still buckled into the seat.
When my mother began living with Dustin whom everyone called "Dusty" the whole mood in the house shifted and Aunt Leanne wasn't around as much. Dusty was like an ocean that changed unexpectedly with the weather. One moment he could be placid, the next he turned into choppy waves that broke hard and stung. I cowered when he yelled. Since my mother was busy with me, she did not always have the perfect hot meal her boyfriend expected ready the moment he walked in the door.
"Can't you even bake a damn biscuit right?" he yelled after he saw the burnt bottom on one, sending the pie tin flying like a Frisbee.
I hid under my blanket as I always did when the fighting started, hoping it would protect me from their nasty words or physical brawls. I peered through a hole at a single object like a shoe and tried to make everything else disappear.
I remember when my pregnant mother awoke from a nap and found my aunt and Dusty sitting close together watching television. She caught them tickling and laughing. My mother screamed at my aunt, "How could you? He's the father of my baby!"
"You sure of that?" my aunt screeched back before she slammed the screen door behind her.
After that, she was gone for weeks, and I missed her so much that I would curl my hair around my own fingers and pretend it was her doing it.
Not long after that, there was a new baby: Tommy. My mother brought him home in a yellow blanket and let me kiss his tiny fingers. I don't remember much else because he came and went in less than two months. Sometimes I thought that I had dreamed him or that he was merely a doll I was not supposed to touch. The last time I saw him, he had suddenly stopped moving and turned from pink to gray. We all sat in a room and everyone passed him around. He was lying in a box that was padded with a pillow.
My mother got pregnant again shortly after Tommy disappeared. A few months later she married Dusty, and for a short time we seemed like a happy little family. But only nine months after Tommy was born, Luke arrived premature. Before my mother was even twenty, she had managed to have three children in less than three years.
At least Luke unlike me came into the world with a father. At birth my new brother weighed only two pounds. My mother had to come home from the hospital without him.
"Did you really have a baby?" I asked my mother.
"He has to stay with the nurses until he gets bigger," she explained.
A few days later I awoke to her sobbing. Dusty was trying to comfort her, but she pushed him away. "It's all your fault because you hit me!" she yelled.
I tried to understand how Dusty's hitting her could harm the unborn baby. I rested my head on her belly. It felt like a balloon that had some of the air let out. "When can I see my brother?" I asked.
"They had to take him from the hospital in Spartanburg to the one in Greenville where they can care for him better," my mother explained. "We'll drive up there as soon as we can."
In the meantime, my mother went back to work. Dusty was supposed to watch me while my mother worked the late shift. One night neighbors found me wandering through the trailer park alone and kept me until my mother returned home.
The next day she packed a bag and we moved into a Ronald McDonald House near the hospital.
We went to see Luke every day. Most of the time I had to wait outside in a room where there were little tables, coloring books, and crayons. Sometimes they would let me put on a mask and come into the room where the babies were kept in boxes not like the wooden one that had held Tommy, but a plastic one that I could peek through when my mother lifted me up.
"Is he ever getting out of there?" I asked.
"Oh, yes," my mother promised. "He's strong like his daddy."
When Luke came home seven months later, he was not much bigger than one of my dolls. He sometimes wore a doctor's face mask instead of a diaper.
Aunt Leanne came by to help and called often. "Where's your mama?" she asked when I answered the phone.
"In the kitchen cookin' dope," I replied.
"I'm coming right over," she said, but when she did, Dusty refused to let her in.
Dusty worked as a framing subcontractor. After an argument over money, his partner stormed over to our trailer. Dusty locked him out, but he busted down the door and then started tearing up the house. A chair hit the wall and a table flew in my direction. I ducked, but my mother started screaming, "You almost hurt Ashley!"
"I'm okay, Mama," I said as I crouched in a corner.
"We need to move," my mother announced to Dusty while they cleaned up the mess. "There are too many bad influences on you around here."
"And you're an angel?" he shot back. "Besides, all my work is here."
"There's plenty of work in Florida." She kicked the broken chair into a corner. "I wish I had never left there after Mama died."
Her mother my maternal grandmother, Jenny had her first child when she was fourteen, but she put that baby up for adoption. Over the next six years she had Perry; followed by the twins, Leanne and Lorraine; and finally, Sammie. Then, at twenty-one, Grandma Jenny was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had a hysterectomy. Sick, poor, and battered by her alcoholic husband, she decided she could not raise her kids any longer and turned them over to a Baptist children's home. My mother did not have much to do with either parent for many years, but when Jenny was about to die in Florida, my mother went to see her for the last time. Jenny was thirty-three.
Using her small inheritance, my mother enrolled in cosmetology school. Before they would allow her to train with the hair treatment chemicals, she had to have a physical checkup. This is how she found out she was pregnant with me. My mother thinks she conceived me when she partied the night of her mother's funeral. In any case, I was born thirty-nine weeks later. While she was in labor, she was watching The Young and the Restless, and so she named me Ashley after one of the soap opera characters.
When Dusty agreed to move to Tampa, my mother cheered up. As she packed, she hummed "You Are My Sunshine" and explained to me, "We're moving to the Sunshine State to live happily ever after."
I do not remember much about the long car trip except singing along with Joan Jett on the radio. When we first arrived in Florida, we stayed at a motel, then a trailer that smelled like low tide. I have memories of walking around that trailer park carrying Luke's bottle and begging for milk.
Our car always smelled of pickles and mustard from all the fast food we ate in it. I was enjoying my usual kids' meal in the backseat when my mother shouted, "Shit, shit!" A flashing red light made the car's windows glow rosy, and I liked the way my hands looked, as though they were on fire.
A siren blared. Dusty banged the steering wheel. "Ashley, you keep saying you gotta go potty, okay?" my mother ordered.
A police officer asked where our license plate was.
"Mommy, gotta go potty!" I called loudly.
"Where're you headed?" the officer asked.
"To my stepfather's house," my mother said in her most genial voice.
"We're just in from South Carolina. We're moving here," Dusty continued rapidly, "so I'll get a new Florida plate tomorrow."
"Welcome to Florida," he said, glancing at me and Luke before arresting Dusty for not having a license plate on the car or a valid driver's license.
My mother alternately cussed and cried while we waited for Dusty to be released. It was several hours before we could go home to our apartment. The shoebox-style building was on tree-lined Sewaha Street. "We're living in a duplex now," my mother explained, and I sensed that we had come up in the world. Three days later I encountered more police officers the ones who broke up our family forever.
I was sitting on the stoop dressed only in shorts when the police cars pulled up. "He's not here," my mother said when they asked for Dusty. One of the men kept coming toward her. My mother, who was holding Luke, screamed, "I didn't do anything!"
"Mama," I cried, reaching both hands up for her to lift me as well. A uniformed man pushed me away and snatched Luke out of her arms. I tried to rush toward my mother, who was already being put in the backseat of a police car. The door slammed so hard, it shook my legs. Through the closed window, I could hear my mother shouting, "Ashley!" Someone held me back as the car pulled away. I struggled and kicked trying to chase after her.
"It's okay! Settle down!" the man with the shiny buttons said.
I sobbed for my Teddy Ruxpin. "Winky!"
"Who's that?" The officer let me run inside. I pulled Winky out from under a blanket on my bed. "Oh, it's your teddy. He can come too." He grabbed two of my T-shirts and told me to put one on and to wear my flip-flops. My Strawberry Shortcake T-shirt ended up on Luke, although it was way too big for him.
At the police station a man in uniform handed Luke to a woman in uniform. Luke tugged on Winky's ears as I sat beside him and the female officer. In the background I could hear my mother yelling for us, but I could not see her. Two women wearing regular clothes arrived. One lifted Luke; the other's rough hand pulled me in her direction. The woman who held Luke also took Winky.
"No!" I cried, reaching for Winky.
"It's just for a little while," the first woman told me.
My mother came into view for a few seconds. "Ashley! I'll get you soon!" Then a door slammed and she was gone. I turned and Luke was no longer there. I was pushed outside and loaded into a car.
"Mommy! Luke!" I cried. "Winky!"
"You'll see them later," the woman said as our car drove off.
Thinking about that moment is like peeling a scab off an almost-healed wound. I still believed everything would return to normal. Little did I know, I would never live with my mother or see Winky again.
Copyright © 2008 by Ashley Rhodes-Courter
Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide to
Three Little Words: A Memoir
By Ashley Rhodes-Courter About the Book
Ashley was only three years old when she was taken from her mother too young to understand why she couldn't stay with the mother she adored and she could not possibly have realized that she was going to spend the next nine years bouncing from one foster family to another. As a small child she could not stand up for herself when the people that were charged with her care failed her. At twenty years old, her mother Lorraine was also too young to take responsibility for her two children or negotiate the legal system that tore apart her family. Three Little Words is Ashley's story, told in her voice, about the time she spent without Lorraine, and her search for someone to mother her. It contains all the passion and detail that can only come from someone who has experienced the foster care system from the inside.
About the Author
After spending almost ten years in foster care, twenty-two year old Ashley Rhodes-Courter has been featured in Glamour, USA Today, and on The Today Show. Ashley is a sought-after child advocate and gives keynotes to conferences on foster care and adoption all across the United States. She has spoken on Capitol Hill and has been invited to the White House twice. In early 2007, she was honored with a Golden BR!CK Award, which gave $25,000 to her charity: the North American Council on Adoptable Children. Her memoir, Three Little Words, published by Simon & Schuster began as an essay also titled "Three Little Words," which won a writing contest for high school students and ran in New York Times Magazine. She hopes that her story might inspire young people to share and learn from their hardships so that this generation can change the world for the better.
1. What are the three little words of the title? Are these the words that you expected? Why are they so significant to Ashley and to the story? Do you think that Ashley would change these three words if she could?
2. Why did fighting the Mosses become so important to Ashley? What was she hoping to gain? Was Gay and Phil's reaction to her efforts fair? Was the end result worth the effort?
3. Ashley was always acting out toward Gay, and made a point of doing things that would anger or hurt her adopted mother. Why did she act this way toward Gay but not toward Phil? How did Gay's reaction to all this affect Ashley's behavior? Why did Ashley eventually stop acting this way? Was her behavior markedly different from a "normal" teenager's?
4. Why did Ashley drug Gay and Phil? Why did getting caught upset her? Did her reasons for being upset change?
5. Did Ashley always feel responsible for Luke's happiness and well-being? Is it fair to think that she should have?
6. Was Lorraine a bad mother? Did various people perceive her mothering skills differently? Did her ability to be a good mother change over the years?
7. The officials took Ashley and Luke away from their mother to keep them safe. Did this work? In what ways would they have been better off with their mother? What did they lose when they became foster children?
8. Toward the end of the book, Ashley seemed to reconnect with her extended biological family more quickly and easily than with her mother. Why do you think this is?
9. Were all of Ashley's experiences with foster families bad? Was there anything positive about her time in the system? Who was looking out for her? Who failed her?
10. How did Ashley get involved with writing and public speaking? Why was this important to her?
- This book grew from an essay that Ashley wrote for a competition in which students were asked to write about a moment in their lives in which they learned something about themselves. Write your own essay about such a moment in your life.
- In the past couple years, there have been several high profile custody cases in the news. Choose one of these cases and have a mock trial to determine who gets custody.
- Set up an interview with a professional who works in the foster care system in your area (case worker, Guardian ad Litem, etc). What do they like and dislike about their job? What is a typical day like? Do they feel like they are making a difference?
- Ashley talks about the Christmas gifts that foster families receive from local sponsors. Organize a toy or clothing drive to benefit less fortunate children in your area.
- Speaking out on behalf of foster children has become an important part of Ashley's life. Is there a cause that resonates with you? Write an essay or speech about it and see if you can give this speech to an appropriate service organization in your area. If this is not an option, perhaps you can write a letter to someone who is active in the cause you've chosen.