She was 3 years old when Ashley Rhodes-Courter and her little brother found themselves in the foster care system. They were eventually split up and bounced from home to home.
Rhodes-Courter, an author and the keynote speaker at Thursday night's Central Missouri Foster Care and Adoption Association Gala, told more than 400 people in attendance they are the reason young people can survive the system, and why some could have positive outcomes.
"I hope you recognize how powerful these young people are when they're just given a chance and given someone to believe in them," Rhodes-Courter said. "And give them a place. And give them pride in themselves."
She offered a glimpse of what a life for a child could be like in foster care.
As she bounced from foster home to foster home, she was placed with people who had problems with drugs, alcohol, violence and pedophilia.
One foster family had 16 children sharing two bedrooms in a trailer.
"We were beaten, starved, locked outside, forced to swallow hot sauce," Rhodes-Courter said. "They get super bizarre in the South. I don't know what's up with that."
She would tell her teachers, counselors and any adult who would listen to her about the abuse. Fortunately, being mandated reporters, they had to report abuse. That triggered investigations.
Unfortunately, many of the other children in the homes were terrified and didn't report what was happening.
"So, I was branded a liar and a trouble-maker," Rhodes-Courter said. "Those types of labels — especially on foster kids — they can trail us for the rest of our lives."
People have preconceived notions about who foster children are, what they can achieve and how they came to be in foster care in the first place. She got removed from all the chaos in the home. Eventually, at 12, she was adopted from a children's home.
When she was 16 years old, she was watching television in her family's living room one evening when mugshots of her former foster parents appeared in the news. They had been arrested on 42 counts of child abuse and torture.
Finally, there was evidence somebody was listening to the children.
She went to her adoptive parents — who are decidedly passive — and demanded they "storm the castle and make a difference." Their response was to hug it out and process it in therapy.
"No, you crazy old hippies. This is the real deal," she exclaimed.
There were more than 500,000 children in foster care. She knew their voices needed to be heard and their stories needed to be put forward.
Rhodes-Courter pestered her parents who got in touch with a prominent child rights attorney. The family went through an entire process of class-action suits in Florida, which helped change legislation, created a timeline for how young children came into care and gave voices to foster parents, advocates and people who step forward for children.
"All of the horrible stuff I had gone through maybe made a difference for a kid," she said.
Rhodes-Courter felt selfishly self-satisfied that for the first time she had legal access to all of her own case files.
The files consisted of more than 80,000 documents.
The information provided phone numbers and other contact information. She got to go back and interview foster parents, caseworkers, teachers and other adults who influenced her story.
Even though what she remembered was the horrific abuse and rejection, she found nuggets that were positive.
"I think it's human nature for people to remember the worst of their experiences. Especially, if you don't have someone in your life to remind you of the good times," Rhodes-Courter said.
She was reminded of how one foster family would stop at a strawberry stand and buy her a pint of strawberries as a treat after an especially traumatic visit. Another family kept photographs and schoolwork and other memories.
People had saved the "precious tokens of my past," she said. "These small acts of kindness started to break away all of these ideas I had about myself and my worth."
She is grateful for the people who came together and recognized she deserved a family and a future.
Older children are so much more difficult to place, she said. She was one of the "super, super lucky kids" who was adopted.
"Having a family and having permanency meant that I had a father to walk me down the aisle when I got married. It meant that I had a mother to hold my hand in the delivery room when we gave birth to our first child," Rhodes-Courter said.
She will have people in her life who will cherish her forever. She has amazing experiences that are pretty normal for most people.
"When I say that this work is life or death, I don't say that casually. One of the biggest questions that I'm asked when I go out to speak is, 'What happened to your brother?'" Rhodes-Courter said. "Well, he, unfortunately was one of the more unfortunate statistics. From the age of 17 on, each year he had at least one felony arrest. And last October he died from a heroin overdose."
It is a reminder of why people were celebrating the Central Missouri Foster Care and Adoption Association.
The work the association is doing is saving the lives of children in the community, she said.
According to DeAnna Alonso, founder, president and CEO of CMFCAA, it includes 30 Days to Family, Extreme Recruitment, Stories from the Heart Videos, Begin Again Backpack and other programs.
The 30 Days to Family program is an intense short-term intervention developed to increase the number of children placed with a relative when they enter the system and ensure natural and community support is in place.
Extreme Recruitment is a race to find permanency for youth using 12-20 weeks of intensive recruitment efforts and permanency preparation.
"This year, we're starting to train families to be adoptive families," Alonso said.
The program is designed to recruit and train families to become resource families for abused and neglected children in order to increase the number of qualified, supportive families in Central Missouri, according to the CMFCAA website.
"We move quickly to see if kids can get placed with kinship families," she said.