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Three Little Words

In this prize-winning essay, a young woman recalls how a decade of disappointing foster care placements made her doubt the two people who had taken her into their hearts. by Ashley Marie Rhodes-Courter



I never thought three little words would have such an impact on my life, even though they weren't the words I was supposed to say. Every time I see the videotape, I cringe. It was one of those memorable occasions that families treasure, but this is one "treasure" I would rather bury.

It was July 28, 1998, my adoption day. I had spent almost 10 of my 12 years in foster care; I was now living in my fourteenth placement. Some homes had lasted less than a week; few more than a year. So why would this one be any different? Before this placement, I had been in residential care (the politically correct name for an orphanage). Do you remember in the movie The Cider House Rules, when the orphans try to smile in just the right way so they will be picked by the couple shopping for a child? While it wasn’t supposed to be so obvious at the Children’s Home of Tampa, prospective parents did act as though they were looking at puppies in a pet shop.

For more than two-and-a-half years I watched the few lucky dogs pack up their belongings, wave goodbye and exit the gate. I also saw them return— even after being placed with a family—with their tails between their legs. People made promises about “forever families,” but often something went wrong. I don’t know what families expected. Nobody is perfect, and children who have already been rejected by their parents—or at least feel they’ve been—are hoping that someone will love them no matter how they behave. I had been living with my new family for eight months. Everything seemed to be going well, but would that change after the papers were signed? And just because it was “official,” did that mean they would not send me back if I didn’t live up to their expectations?

My parents have two biological kids who are grown; they thought raising a daughter might fill their empty nest. I loved my new waterfront house, with my own room and a bathroom I didn’t have to share. For the first time, I could have friends over, and my all-star softball team came to swim after our games. Overnights are forbidden in foster care, but now I hosted and went to slumber parties. I could use the phone anytime I wanted, and lots of the calls were for me. I had my first pet, a kitten named Catchew that slept on my bed. There were no locks on the refrigerator or scheduled mealtimes. I could help myself to as many boxes of macaroni and cheese, bowls of ramen noodles, or grilled-cheese sandwiches as I wanted.

When I did something wrong, my pre-adoptive parents docked my allowance or cut back on TV or telephone time. In one foster home, I was beaten with a paddle, denied food, forced to stand in awkward positions, swallow hot sauce, and run laps in the blistering sun. Other times, I was removed to a new home with a new set of rules and promises. Nobody really lives happily ever after, do they? So when was this picture-perfect story going to fall apart? Before or after the “finalization”?

You can see how terrified I am on the videotape as we enter the courthouse. My eyes seem to be searching for a way out as I am led into Judge Florence Foster’s chambers. On one side of the conference table are the people from my old life; on the other, those who represent my new one. I am placed between Gay and Phil, who are about to become my new parents. Across the way are two representatives from the Children’s Home, both therapists. They are happy for me, but that is their job. Mary Miller is smiling and holding a bouquet. She had been my volunteer guardian ad litem for four years and did the most to help me get a family.

“Our” side is also represented by Gay’s father, Grampy Weisman; one of my new brothers, Josh, who is home from college and acting as the cameraman; and my new godparents, the Weiners, who have brought their three small daughters. The proceedings are delayed because the Department of Children and Families representative is late. He also held up the adoption by neglecting the paperwork for months. While the others chat, I am biting my lip and biding my time. Finally the representative arrives, and my attorney, Neil Spector, who is also Gay’s cousin, begins the proceedings. I wait for my cue. But what am I supposed to do? Act as if this is the happiest day of my life? How can it be, when I am petrified that everything is a big fat lie?

After some legal jargon, the judge turns to me. “Nothing in life comes easy,” she begins. “If it does, you should be suspicious.” She may be trying to comfort me by saying that she knows I’ve overcome many hardships to get where I am. Instead, she just reinforces my fears that life with my new family is too good to be true. Because of my age, I have to consent to the adoption. After talking to my parents, the judge asks me, “Do you want me to sign the papers and make it official, Ashley?”

On the tape, it looks as if I am trapped center stage in the spotlight. Do I have a choice? I stare straight ahead, shrug my shoulder and mumble, “I guess so.” In three words, it is done.

P.S. Almost five years later, I am still with my family. I didn’t know then what I know now: some people can be trusted.

Ashley Marie Rhodes-Courter is in her senior year at Crystal River High School, Crystal River, FL. This essay was awarded first place by the New York Times in its annual high school writing competition.
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