A child welfare worker’s professional review: Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

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I am a child protection social worker in central Wisconsin, and have been in my current position for just under two years. I work with foster children, their biological parents, and foster families.

I picked up a copy of “Three Little Words” written by Ashley Rhodes-Courter, in hopes of gaining more insight surrounding the child welfare system and foster care. Ashley’s recollections of her experiences were instantly captivating, and taught me unexpected lessons.

Children are so much more perceptive than adults tend to expect.

Ashley frequently spoke about conversations that her foster parents and caseworkers had that were supposed to be a secret and out of range from the the child’s hearing. Ashley’s anger, confusion, and annoyance with her social workers speaking about her mother illustrated how traumatic poorly timed conversations can impact a child. Whispering and side conversations when a child, even young child, is present can be detrimental to their hope and perception of their living environment. Ashley knew when her social workers were lying to her in the form of minimizing her desires and wants.

Taking time to listen to children and giving them a small say in their experience is a powerful tool and reduces trauma.

Ashley had a guardian ad litem (GAL) after a few years spent in foster care. She recalls conversations that she had with her GAL, and is empowered by the hope and honesty that the GAL provides when speaking about Ashley’s case. As I was reading, I related more to the GAL than the social workers. Many of the conversations I have with foster families and foster children focus on the long term permanence of the child. Ashley appears to connect the most with her GAL because she is able to communicate where she wishes to live.

Explaining difficult truth happens daily in my work. There is constantly the balance of informing children the truth and protecting them from further trauma. What that balance looks like is different for each child. Age, functioning, and emotional stability are a few factors I consider when speaking to children about the truth of their situation. The child welfare system operates on unknowns. Unknown timelines, unknown placements, unknown reunification, and unknown answers are just a few challenges foster children face. Foster children have asked me “Am I going to stay here forever?” and “When can I go live with mom and dad?” My answers usually do not give a direct answer, because I do not have the answer. I frequently ask children where they would like to live and question what they would change in their life if they had all the power.

It is extremely important to note that Ashley does not immediately trust her GAL. Only after multiple visits and conversations did Ashley come to trust her GAL. This fact makes me cringe inside. My case load and the load of my colleagues is overbearing. I see my assigned foster children at least once per month. I visit foster children at school, the foster home, and doctor’s appointments. Some situations do not provide a convenient space to have a private conversation. The state’s requirements for case management matched with top-heavy case loads do not prevent adequate time to fully invest into each case. I recognize the importance of trusting relationships between social workers and children. After reading about Ashley’s feelings of empowerment in meeting with a trusted provider, I intentionally make efforts to work towards trusting relationships. The reality of the situation stands that the more time invested in relationships with the actual humans, the further behind I become in the state required paperwork.

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Having the title of a foster parent does not make humans perfect.

Ashley’s description of a particular abusive foster home is horrific and can not be ignored by this review. The repeated abuse, even after disclosures and investigations, shows how forgiving the system can be towards foster parents. I tell new foster parents that they are held to a high standard, compared to “regular” parents, when discussing discipline and daily household routines. The abuse and deception the Moss family engaged in was inhumane. Reading about the child welfare system’s response to multiple allegations had me in tears. In my own professional experience, being a whistle-blower to issues in foster care is not a comfortable situation. As a child protection worker, it was my duty to protect children, no matter where they live and no matter the personal or professional cost. Ashley’s experience was a harsh reminder of professional ethics and the necessity to speak up in all unjust situations.

I need to acknowledge the positive experiences I have personally witnessed with foster care. Matching foster children with foster families who are willing to invest in, love, and lift up foster children who can not return home reminds me how powerful human connection can be. I work with so many foster parents that live to pour into damaged and vulnerable children.

Planning for children in foster care needs to be a primary focus for professional case workers.

Ashley is moved from one foster home to another, with seemingly no regard for the possibility that her mother may not be able to reunify with her child.

I was relieved when comparing Ashley’s experience to my agency’s practices. I have been trained from day one to consider a “concurrent” or alternative option for a permanent living option. There is a time and place for treatment homes that help stabilize children to prepare them for reunification or transition to a more permanent home. I frequently rule out foster homes that are interested in placement of children, but indicate they are unable to be long term resources for children. I recognize each time a child moves into a new foster home, they are going through another traumatic “removal” and upheaval of normalcy.

Focusing on long term permanence at the beginning of a case is positive indicator that the system is slowly progressing and reducing traumatic experiences for vulnerable children.

TO ASHLEY. THANK YOU FOR SPEAKING WHEN OTHERS WOULD NOT.

Thank you for giving your experience a voice and running with what you know is true. Thank you for helping me understand what true resilience looks like. Your experience has helped me become more cognizant of my impact and the perceptions I portray while working in the system.

Foodie, Traveler, Social Worker, Child and Family Therapist, Future LICSW

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