Monday, April 13, 2015

We Demonize the Poor: A Book Review for "Three Little Words"

Once upon a time I had a reading blog. I also had a lofty goal to read all the English language's greatest pieces of literature.

Both those things are pretty much dead.

Oh how I miss books; not reading, I still read a ton. I miss turning pages in a hard bound book -- one without pictures, one without animal characters. I long for great literature and great books.

But I'm also a realist, and I don't have time (or brain capacity) for the novels I love, for the type of reading I love. But recently I realized I could read memoirs, duh! I roam around blogs for several minutes every day. I use the internet to piece together parts of strangers lives and I enjoy it. My "shoot, have to stop reading and go feed a baby, did I ever change that laundry ..." brain can follow first person narratives, compelling story telling, and simple writing. So lately I've dove right into a couple of wonderful memoirs.

There are some passages in "Three Little Words" A Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter that I'd like to jot down for my own personal memory. In Ashley's writing I found powerful words that are part of my deepest beliefs -- the failings I see in our government. And by government, I want to be clear that I am not limiting the term to the bureaucracy, but to our collective society.

I was drawn to Ashley's memoir because I wanted to know what happened to her mother. Ashley spent nine years of her life in fourteen different foster homes. I wanted to know what horrible thing kept a mother from taking care of her baby and a preschooler she affectionately called "Sunshine."

Drugs. Her mom must have been strung out on drugs, I assumed. Here's Ashley's words as she recounts being taken from her mother and why the original arrest took place.

From Chapter One
I was sitting on the stoop dressed only in shorts when the police cars pulled up. "He's not here," my mother said when they asked for Dusty. One of the men kept coming toward her. My mother, who was holding Luke, screamed, "I didn't do anything!"

"Mama," I cried, reaching both hands up for her to lift me as well. A uniformed man pushed me away and snatched Luke out of her arms. I tried to rush toward my mother, who was already being put in the backseat of a police care. The door slammed so hard, it shook my legs. Through the closed window, I could hear my mother shouting "Ashley!" Someone held me back as the car pulled away. I struggled and kicked trying to chase after her. 


At the police station a man in uniform handed Luke to a woman in uniform. ... In the background I could hear my mother yelling for us, but I could not see her. Two women wearing regular clothes arrived. One lifted Luke; the other's rough hand pulled m in her direction. 


My mother came into view for a few seconds. "Ashley! I'll get you soon!" Then a door slammed and she was gone. I turned and Luke was no longer there. I was pushed outside and loaded in a car. 

"Mommy! Luke!" I cried. 

In Chapter Two
Now I know that -- in the beginning at least -- my mother never did anything seriously wrong. She never hurt us. She loved us and I adored her. Originally, the police had arrested my mother for writing a bad check; but Dusty admitted he had stolen the checks, and she was released six days later. When my mother returned home, she found our duplex padlocked. ... Although she submitted applications for food stamps and aid for dependent children, the welfare officials told her that she was ineligible because her children were no longer living with her. When she tried to get us back, the caseworker said she had to be able to provide food for us. 

... Our legal guardian was the executive branch of the Florida government, an entity that would rather pay strangers to care for us than offer any economic help to my mother to care for her own children." 

BOOM! There was my answer, right in chapter two, just 16 pages into the book. But I kept reading, and within 24 hours I turned the final page. Ashley's story is jarring. The abuse and neglect she experienced is horrifying and nowhere near the worst. It's obvious other children "in the system" with her had even more abuse and neglect.

In her note to the reader she says "I don't know which is worse; parents who don't care for their children, biological fathers who don't support their offspring, or professionals who violate their professional standards, as well as the public trust, by neglecting those under their care and control. "

Through out the story you see the failures of all three. Her mother struggles to find the motivation she needs to get her kids back, her biological father is unknown to her, and the caseworkers and courts that handle her case are beyond inept.

But even as I turned the last page on her mostly happy ending, I couldn't help but search those first pages for that horrible scene of an infant and a preschooler being ripped from their loving mother's care -- all because her boyfriend stole some checks.

We scoff at the biblical idea that one would lose their hand because of theft. We mock the backwards culture of nations who still use Old Testament methods of punishment, but are we really any better? Are we so hungry for justice that we, in the name of safety and protection, rip babies out of their mother's arms? Her mother's charges were dropped, but the sentence was served the moment the police pulled up to that duplex. Ashley's life was changed forever.

Rather than offering financial assistance to a young, impoverished mother in need, our government -- our shared society -- would rather spend twice the amount on bureaucracy.

I know I'm using one case to make a HUGE claim, but I see it in policy every where I look. Drug tests for welfare recipients, criminal prosecution of simple drug possession, lack of proper rehab facilities, and on and on. We blow money on petty justice and ruin children's lives in the process.

Spoiler alert: drug abuse would keep Ashley from reuniting with her mom. But the separation preceded the drug abuse, perhaps it even caused it. What if even half of the thousands of dollars that had been spent seeking justice had been spent rendering mercy?

I recommend reading "Three Little Words." I know foster care isn't so horrific for everyone, and unfortunately the happy ending isn't a guarantee either. But voices like Ashley's need to be heard. When we think about policies that affect women like her mother, we have to keep Ashley's childhood and voice in the back of our mind. Even as a well adjusted adult, she acknowledges the need to be connected to her extended biological family -- a family that fought for her, but eventually lost to a system that failed her.

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