In my last column for The Chronicle, I reviewed Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter, who triumphed after a harrowing 10 years in foster care. Her second memoir, Three More Words, documents her life since leaving her adoptive home for college.
Rhodes-Courter is now a popular speaker with a Master’s degree in social work. And until this year, she was a dedicated foster parent for the State of Florida who had taken 20 children in crisis into her home.
Her drive to speak out against the problems in her state’s child welfare system have cost her the ability to help improve it. She chose not to be silenced by a state-sponsored ultimatum to clam up about the death of a child she once cared for.
Last February, Rhodes-Courter was horrified to read that one of her former foster children had been beaten to death by a schizophrenic uncle. Jenica Randazzo had been with the Courters less than a month before she was placed with a family that was planning to adopt her. But Rhodes-Courter learned that after Jenica had left her home, the plan for Jenica had changed.
Jenica and her siblings had been sent back to the grandparents’ home from which they had been removed in 2012 because they were deemed to be in “substantial and immediate danger.” Also living in the home was Jenica’s uncle, Jason Rios, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
On February 7, Rios killed his mother and Jenica with a tire iron. His father stopped him after he had hit Jenica’s 7-year-old sister and had his arm raised to hit her again.
Executives with Eckerd Community Alternatives, the lead agency providing child welfare services in the Tampa Bay area, reviewed the case and concluded “there were no indications that could have predicted this tragic outcome.”
But Jason Rios’ mental health issues were not noted by Eckerd or the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), even though he lived in the home. His parents never told caseworkers that he was committed to a psychiatric institution three times because of behavior that could be a threat to himself or others. The third time was only two or three months before he killed Jenica, when she and her siblings were already living in the home.
Jenica’s team appeared to be focusing on a non-relative adoption for Jenica until the private agency handling her case closed, according to an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times. The previous team had concerns about the grandparents’ ability to handle the children.
But everything changed when that agency closed and Jenica had a new case manager and therapist. Suddenly, the focus was on returning the children to their grandparents, against the recommendations of her court-appointed volunteer guardian.
DCF could have requested a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team report to clarify all of the unresolved questions in order to avoid further tragedies, but the agency declined to do so. Rhodes-Courter and her husband did not accept the agency’s refusal to take responsibility.
They decided to speak out, posting about the case on Facebook and eventually speaking to the media.
“Someone needs to demand answers for Jenica. I don’t want the truth of what happened to remain buried with her body,” said Rhodes-Courter.
Rhodes-Courter notes officials with Carlton Manor — the case management agency assigned to Jenica when her original agency closed — lost no time in contacting her and her husband and advising them to stop speaking to the media. Eventually they demanded that the Courters sign a document admitting they had violated confidentiality and pledging to stop speaking out.
Failure to sign the contract, Rhodes-Courter was told, would be grounds for closing her home to new foster care placements.
According to the Courters’ attorney, her clients did not breach any confidentiality statutes. But the Courters decided to surrender their license rather than stop speaking out or risk having their license formally revoked, which could prevent their fostering or adopting in the future.
The fact that an agency was willing to jettison a dedicated foster family to cover itself is emblematic of the problems plaguing child welfare in this country. The over-use of confidentiality to hide agency negligence is common as well.
Being a great foster parent requires being passionate. But when it comes to government, passion can be your downfall if its directed at something that will get leaders in trouble.
In this case, Rhodes-Courter’s passion for a better Florida child welfare system cost the state a dedicated foster family.
NOTE ON SOURCES: I learned about Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s fight to get justice for Jenica from an article published by the Children’s Campaign of Florida. Rhodes-Courter also has her own “Justice for Jenica” page, which provides links to various media accounts. I found the detailed articles by the Tampa Bay Times and the Bradenton Herald to be particularly helpful.