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Three Little Words: A Memoir

by Ashley Rhodes-Courter(Simon & Schuster/Atheneum; $17.99)

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In one of her many placements, Ashley Rhodes-Courter is forced by her foster mother to swallow hot sauce and squat for long periods as punishment for minor infractions. Three Little Words: A Memoir is the heart-wrenching story of the author's nine-year descent into the bureaucratic maze of foster care. Her ordeal begins at age three, when she is removed from the care of her teenage mother and the abusive man who fathered her half-brother, Luke.

The siblings are bounced from one placement to the next, throughout South Carolina and Florida. They eventually go to live with their maternal grandfather and his kindly companion, Adele, and enjoy a measure of stability. But the grandfather's own checkered past catches up with him, and he ends up getting shot during an argument. Adele wants to keep the children herself, but doesn't have a foster-care license. Ashley and Luke are sent back to Florida, where they stay in a succession of mostly substandard (and sometimes abusive) foster homes.

It's not until Ashley is nearly 10 that she begins to rebuild her shattered faith. She meets a Guardian ad Litem named Mary Miller, who labors behind the scenes. Ultimately, at an adoption picnic, Ashley is matched with a highly educated couple. They adopt her, at age 12, even though the love between them is tenuous at first. (The title, Three Little Words, which one might assume to be “I love you,” refers to the words that Ashley says to the judge when asked if she wants to be adopted: "I guess so.")

The author, who just graduated from college, is happy with the couple who adopted her—and who helped her press charges against her abusive foster parents. She is a remarkable writer, with a sure feel for dialogue, which propels her story. The memoir was especially poignant for me, as a former foster mother. My only objection to Three Little Words is that some of the horrific placements depicted in this stunning memoir could unfairly stigmatize many good foster parents, or dissuade others from considering this path.

Reviewed by Annie Kassof, a freelance writer and adoptive mom who has fostered more than 20 children.

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