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Ashley Rhodes-Courter had it rough growing up in the foster-care system.
She was removed from her birth mother when she was 3. For about 10 years, Rhodes-Courter was bounced around to 14 different foster and group homes — many of which, she recalled, were extremely abusive.
Yet, Rhodes-Courter, 32, used that painful past to propel herself to a positive future.
She got a master’s degree in social work and became a guardian ad litem, a volunteer who advocates on behalf of kids in the child-welfare system.
She founded a direct-services agency — Sustainable Family Services — and a nonprofit organization — the Foundation for Sustainable Families. Both concentrate on assisting families in need.
And for a span of about five years, Rhodes-Courter and her husband, Erick Smith, opened their home in St. Petersburg, Florida, to over 25 foster children. They were newlyweds in their early 20s when they took in their first foster child.
Some placements were for only a few days or weeks. Other foster kids stayed for several months to more than a year.
“We were just so passionate and dedicated about [the decision to foster] because of my experiences,” Rhodes-Courter said.
What she went through in her childhood served as a blueprint for the kind of parents she and her husband knew they did not want to be, she said.
Taking on all that responsibility — including the financial obligations — at a young age could be daunting for some, but Rhodes-Courter said the challenges did not sway her or Smith from their choice to foster.
“I know that the financial burden is a big reservation for people when they’re fostering,” she said. “However, I also knew [from my experience] as a social worker, children in foster care are granted a lot of resources. So I had confidence in myself that we were savvy enough to navigate the various systems of care.”
Affording New Additions
Rhodes-Courter and Smith fostered mostly children under the age of 5. Those kids are eligible for WIC, a supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children, and for subsidized day care and Medicaid, she said.
To help foster parents manage the expenses involved with raising children, child-welfare agencies also grant monthly subsidies. The amount can vary based on several factors, including the needs of the child and the family’s location.
Rhodes-Courter said it’s not always easy navigating the different systems to receive the benefits foster children are entitled to, but it can help alleviate some of the financial pressures families face.
However, just because child-welfare systems do provide financial aid, that doesn’t mean foster parents won’t encounter any costs. Some little ones came to their door with nothing but a soggy diaper, meaning Rhodes-Courter and her husband immediately had to buy clothes and diapers.
To meet the requirements to be foster parents, Rhodes-Courter said, her family had to show they could afford the costs of a child without assistance from the state. She said she and her husband incurred a lot of out-of-pocket expenses because they chose to go above and beyond the basic care for their foster children.
“We chose to ensure that our kids got to do extracurricular activities and after-school programs and music lessons,” Rhodes-Courter said.
Seeking specialized medical and developmental care for certain children was another expense her family took on.
They also had to buy some home-safety equipment to become licensed foster parents.
“There are little things that maybe a traditional home may or may not have,” she said. “Like we had to have fire extinguishers. We had to make sure that we had thermometers in the freezer and the refrigerator.”
Despite the added costs of having foster children, Rhodes-Courter said she never saw it as a huge financial strain.
“I think, for us, the rewards of serving these kids and giving them safe spaces absolutely outweighed any financial burden that we had,” she said. “I wouldn’t even use the word ‘burden’ because when you’re a parent, you do what you can when you can, and that’s the same for biological children or foster children.”
Eliminating Financial Barriers
Rhodes-Courter said people interested in fostering shouldn’t let finances deter them.
“If you feel like you’re a family of modest means, there are so many programs in place to help support you on your journey to fostering,” she said.
Also, adopting Penny Hoarder ways can help. Rhodes-Courter said she was a heavy couponer, bought clothes secondhand and swapped baby supplies with other parents.
“That adage: ‘It takes a village’ — well, when you’re a foster parent, that’s ever so true,” she said.
Rhodes-Courter said foster families can come from a variety of financial backgrounds. She knows foster parents who are teachers and others who are professional athletes.
You don’t have to fit into a certain box to foster. It’s OK if you’re not the perfect two-parent family with a house in the suburbs, a white picket fence and a labradoodle.
You can be a foster parent if you’re single or if you’re still paying off student-loan debt or if you live in an apartment.
“The reality is there are not enough foster families to go around,” Rhodes-Courter said. “The point is to provide a safe, loving, nurturing home.”
Not All Foster Parents Are Created Equal
Since child-welfare agencies give foster parents money, there’s sometimes the outside assumption that they’re in it only for the cash.
Sadly, Rhodes-Courter can personally attest to how some do abuse the system, living up to that bad reputation.
“I was in one home that had 16 kids sharing two bedrooms in a trailer,” she said, adding that she and the others were beaten, starved and locked outside. “It was just completely awful, and it was very apparent that these parents were doing it for the money.”
Rhodes-Courter stressed that families should never make the decision to foster for monetary reasons.
“Unfortunately, some people do see this as a secondary income, but that’s absolutely not why people should get into fostering,” she said. “It’s my hope that the licensing agencies have screenings and protocols in place to avoid that scenario where people are getting into it for the wrong reasons.”
The Emotional Costs of Fostering
Rhodes-Courter not only endured emotional scars as a foster kid. Her experience as a foster mother also took an emotional toll.
“It’s the objective of foster care to get these kids back into their families of origin,” she said. “Sometimes it’s really devastating because as a foster parent, we’ve had times when there were kids reunified to homes where we saw that the parents were still using drugs and posting pictures of it on Facebook.”
Rhodes-Courter recalled one toddler who came to their home with multiple sexually transmitted diseases and was later reunited with her mother, who Rhodes-Courter said admitted she was aware her daughter was being raped but “didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”
Rhodes-Courter wrote about some of the heartbreaking experiences she encountered as a foster parent in her book “Three More Words,” a follow-up to her memoir, “Three Little Words,” which details her childhood in foster care.
She dealt with the tough times as a foster parent by pushing ahead and preparing to help the next kid.
“For us, we just knew that for every child who left our home, despite the circumstance, there was going to be a call a half an hour later with a new child who needed our help,” Rhodes-Courter said. “So for us, we just kept moving forward with the determination to help as many children as we could. Our beds never stayed empty for very long because there’s so much of a need.”
Fostering to Adoption
Although Rhodes-Courter and Smith didn’t get into fostering with the intention to adopt, one of the last foster children to take a bed in their home ended up with a permanent place in their lives.
The couple adopted then-1-year-old Skyler in 2013.
Yet Rhodes-Courter said people shouldn’t go into fostering thinking it’s an easy path to adoption.
“We had over 25 kids, and I think only three or four of them ever became available for adoption, only one of which we were able to adopt,” she said.
Rhodes-Courter, who was adopted from foster care herself at age 12, said families who specifically want to adopt should make that clear at the start of the process to become licensed foster parents.
“Many times the goal [for foster children] is reunification, and foster kids may be placed with their birth families after foster parents have fallen in love with them and considered them to be a permanent part of their lives,” she said.
Those who do end up adopting a child from foster care find it’s so different financially from adopting through a private agency or international agency, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“An adoption from foster care is supposed to be at no cost to the adoptive parent, which is really, really helpful for a lot of families,” Rhodes-Courter said. “And they’re also eligible for an adoption tax credit at the end of the year, which is also really helpful for families.”
These days, Rhodes-Courter and Smith are raising Skyler, now 6, along with their biological sons, Ethan, 5, and Andrew, 3. Though no longer foster parents, they continue to advocate for children and help families thrive.
“We just felt the calling and the need,” Rhodes-Courter said. “We wanted to be the kind of home, and now the kind of service provider, that I felt like I would have needed when I was a child.”
Nicole Dow is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She enjoys writing about families and finances.
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