Sue Carlton: Foster care comes full circle

A woman who was adopted out of the state system and grew up to become a child advocate has adopted a son.
Published December 27 2013
Updated December 28 2013

She was 12 and didn't think there was a whole lot in the world she could count on.

Taken from her mother and into state custody when she was 3, shuffled between caseworkers, she was on her 14th foster home.

Some of it had been very bad. In one Plant City home, she was beaten, denied food, punished in creatively humiliating ways.

And now this latest couple was standing in front of a judge, wanting to adopt her?

When it was official, the woman who would be her mother leaned over and kissed her. The girl wiped it away.

You might think you know the end of this story, one about cycles repeating themselves and a girl already lost.

But sometimes paths come full circle.

• • •

Ashley Rhodes-Courter, now 28, married and living in St. Petersburg, has probably told her story a hundred times as she advocated for child welfare issues.

She said it in speeches when she was 14 and living in Citrus County. She wrote it in an essay about growing up in Florida's foster care system for a New York Times Magazine writing contest for high school students. She won.

She made Glamour's top 10 college women for her work with foster kids. Her book about her life, Three Little Words, made the New York Times bestseller list, landing her on Good Morning America and Today. I won't spoil it, but the three words from the day she was adopted probably aren't what you're thinking.

"I wanted it to be kind of a call to action," Rhodes-Courter told me recently, "not just a boo-hoo story or a sob story."

She became a guardian ad litem. She and her husband Erick Smith took foster parent classes.

"We felt young and energetic and maybe a little crazy," she says, and there were plenty of kids who needed a place. Hers was far from the only story.

It is not a job for the faint of heart.

They fostered a sexually abused toddler who had STDs, another who was malnourished. The day he went back to his family, they found out they were expecting their own son, Ethan, now 1.

They had been foster parents to a towhead named Skyler since he was 4 months old. Now a 2-year-old through and through, he loves to play in the dirt, is obsessed with ducks in the little lake nearby, crawls in their laps to read. He calls them Mommy and Daddy.

A few weeks ago, they made it official and adopted him.

"Eventually, when he starts asking questions, of course we have books on adoption, and Mommy is adopted," she says. They will tell him where he's from and about his family, careful about exposing him to the rawness of those answers.

And once, it had been her in front of a judge, at the edge of the rest of her life.

"I know it's so cliche to think everything happens for a reason," she says, "But in my experience, I think everything has come full circle in a really beautiful way."

She speaks on child welfare issues around the country and is writing her second book even as the first is made into a major motion picture. And how crazy is that, an actress playing out what she lived? "Absolutely insane," she says.

She talks to her adoptive parents every day, calls them her best friends.

"Our son Ethan was their first grandson," she says. "So I'm one up on my brothers."

Which sounds about as family as family gets.