'They Are All Our Children'
How a worker's dedication and agency's flexibility can expand rural adoptions
By Kathleen Belanger
The last issue of Children's Voice profiled the Possum Trot, Texas, community in their journey to adopt more than 70 children. That article only touched on the other important members of the story: the social worker, her supervisor, and the program director of Child Protective Services in East Texas. Their dedication, trustworthiness, and devotion to these courageous families, as well as their flexibility, provided the agency support necessary for the families to put their faith into action. As the late Paul Harvey would have said, here's the rest of the story.
In 1996 Joyce James, now Deputy Commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, made a decision to aggressively address the disproportionate number of African American children in East Texas. She partnered with Stephen F. Austin State University to study the issue, suggest solutions, and assist in assets-based community engagement to tackle the underlying issues and help families keep their children safely. At the same time, she became acutely aware of the many children free for adoption across the state, and opened East Texas to receive children from other areas. "If we have families in Region 05, and there are children waiting for adoption anywhere in the state, the boundaries shouldn't matter," says James. "They are all our children."
Susan Ramsey at her desk, shortly after winning CWLA's Outstanding Service Award in 2000. Ramsey helped dozens of children in Texas's foster care system find families in the Bennett Chapel community.
Recruiting, training, placing, and supervising adoptions, however, took time and staff that the small rural region did not have. The solution? "If you can give us resources, we can give you families," James told Region 06. Rural East Texas entered into an agreement with Houston to transfer two of their allotted positions for the purpose of securing, training, and overseeing adoptions. What ensued was a model for rural adoption, particularly of African American children, that other communities can learn from. "I am particularly impressed by what [James] did to aggressively address the needs of African American children in East Texas," says Jerry W. Friedman, Executive Director of the American Public Human Services Association. "Her work and leadership could serve as a model for other jurisdictions facing similar challenges." One of the positions added in East Texas was given to Susan Ramsey, a generic worker from San Augustine, Texas. She had begun working with two families from the rural Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church to help them adopt, only to find that many more families wanted to care for the children most in need.
Ramsey was 45 years old when she first met Donna Martin and Diann Sparks, women in Possum Trot, Texas, who were midway through their adoption training. Ramsey was awestruck; the women were driving an hour each way to attend trainings for six weeks to adopt children most in need. "She just pitched in and helped me with whatever I was doing," says Sparks about Ramsey's guidance immediately following placement. "I trusted her. I wasn't afraid to tell her anything. Instead of telling me all the things I was doing wrong, she always gave me encouraging words. And she always, always told me that if I couldn't handle it, to let her know."
"One thing about Susan, there was absolutely no pretense. What you saw was what you got," recalls Judy Morgan, Executive Director of Buckner Children and Family Services in Deep East Texas, and then Program Director for Purchased Social Services for Region 05. "Susan was plain spoken. People trusted her--she had such an ability to connect." That trust, that confidence, and the understanding that it was always her choice, helped Sparks become a mother. "I can remember when Susan came and placed [my son] Nino," says Sparks. "She just blended. She had such a heart that everyone just opened their homes." Ramsey's trusting relationship with the community contributed to the events that followed. When she met with Sparks and the Martins, other church members dropped in and began to think that they wanted to adopt as well.
Bringing Training to Rural Families
"Susan came back and said, 'I'm going to license all these families!'" remembers Judy Bowman, Ramsey's supervisor at the time and the current Regional Director of the Department of Family and Protective Services. When Ramsey told her supervisor her intentions, Bowman thought about the logistics. The closest PRIDE training was in Lufkin, 60 miles away from them. Even the closest CPS office was 30 miles away from the community. Where could they train all those families? Bowman made the decision that if 10 families were interested enough to come to an informational meeting, they would hold PRIDE classes at Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. Bowman and Ramsey went to a meeting at the church, expecting a few families, and were overwhelmed by the response. "We didn't hold back," says Bowman. "We told them about the children most in need, some drug addicted, some with mental, physical, and emotional challenges, sibling groups that needed to be placed together. Most of the people there already had children; they didn't really need more. They just understood that many children were waiting to be adopted, and at the end of the meeting asked, 'When do we start?'" According to Bowman, 18 families graduated from the first PRIDE class offered at the church.
Theresa Lathan (seated) and Donna Martin both adopted children from the Texas foster care system.
"[Susan] was a great listener, not as a skill, but because she was really interested. She remembered everyone's name, how they're related," says Morgan. Ramsey's ability to listen and her understanding of rural relationships enabled her to get to know the children and families with whom she worked. "Susan knew who baked the best cakes, and whose mother made the best dressing," Bowman says. "When four sisters adopted, she knew which one had the firmest hand, and would tell the others to talk with her when their little one acted up."
Understanding Wealth in Rural Relationships
In the case of the Bennett Chapel community, CPS did everything it could to help the families from the start. "Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church was provided excellent support by CPS: adoption classes provided on site, a rurally competent worker designated specifically for the community and sensitive to African Americans in deep East Texas," says Ruth McRoy, Ruby Lee Piester Centennial Professor Emerita and Senior Research Fellow of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. "We can all learn much from Possum Trot." The agency provided adoption subsidies, arranged for counseling services, and did in-service training with counselors and schools about the difficulties the children and families faced. But the real togetherness started with the families. With 72 children adopted in less than a decade, the families experienced many of the same challenges and helped each other. If a child needed to stay after school, she could stay with a grandma or sister down the street. According to Bowman, some adoptive families can isolate themselves, but the children and families of Bennett Chapel were not isolated. "The kids who came got moms, dads, uncles, aunts, cousins, sisters, and brothers," says Bowman. "And Susan Ramsey was part of the whole community."
One Woman's Impact
Some of my fondest memories of Ramsey involve her visits to our Child Welfare Library at Stephen F. Austin State University. The library provided a distance-lending program for foster and adoptive parents, staff, and students, and Ramsey came to gather training materials to take to Bennett Chapel. As she picked out books and tapes, she described the challenges the children and families faced with awe and admiration. These were the families who had stepped up and taken the challenge, and she was going to help them in any way she could. "If someone sneezes," she would say, "I'm there with the Kleenex." She was there for parent/teacher conferences if the parents wanted her there. She was there for great events, including Oprah Winfrey's generous donation of Christmas presents, and for difficult days, including the deaths of Joe and Molly Brown, adoptive parents of three. She was there for the community, for the friends and neighbors, and most of all for the children, including Lucky Brown. And she was there just to answer questions over the phone.
Bowman recounts a Christmas when Ramsey wanted to do something for Donna Martin, the woman whose faith had inspired the community to adopt. "Susan decided that what Donna would like most would be a white Christmas tree. So Susan looked everywhere to find just what she thought would please Donna the most."
Pastor W.C. Martin with his wife, Donna, at a recent service at Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. In 1996, Donna encouraged the families in her community to learn more about adoption. Since then, families in Possum Trot, Texas, have adopted 72 children from the foster care system.
Ramsey's guardianship didn't stop with practical help. When Bennett Chapel began to attract media attention, including the Oprah Winfrey Show, Ramsey kept a protective watch over the families. She made sure that, when someone gave toys to the adopted children, all the children in the extended families got the same toys so no one would feel left out. When news cameras came rolling in, she cared only that the children and families wouldn't be "run over" in the rush, and when someone had a bad day, she tried to ensure it did not make the national news.
In 1999, Ramsey discovered a lump in her breast and was diagnosed with cancer, undergoing surgery. Then in March 2000, Ramsey, who was more at home helping cook chicken-fried steak than talking to reporters, made a trip to Washington, DC, to receive CWLA's Outstanding Service Award. She was both nervous and proud, but she wished the Bennett Chapel families could have been there with her as she walked across the stage. Later the same year cancer was found again, with further surgery. But still she kept caring for all the families and children. In 2002, she became unable to continue the work she loved so much. When she was too weak to leave her bed, I had the privilege of some very special moments with her as I massaged her back and sang her Irish lullabies. During that time, she would talk about what was most important to her: the children of Bennett Chapel, the families, each unique but all one community. But most of all, she herself was a wonderful mother, possibly the secret to her success in rural Possum Trot. She loved her own children deeply and was proud of each one: Vanessa, Charlie, and John. That fall, Ramsey died. The children and families of Bennett Chapel, along with CPS staff and supervisors and the larger community of East Texas, came to the service in her memory.
Ramsey sewed seeds that still flourish in rural East Texas. The children and families are thriving. "They have problems, like all families, but they don't handle them any differently," Bowman says. "They never had regrets." Jo Beth Daw replaced Ramsey as the dedicated worker for many years, as more children were placed with the families, and as the children placed there grew. Bennett Chapel has produced a social worker of its own: Melissa Stanberry, who earned her BSW and MSW at Stephen F. Austin State University. Though not an adoptive parent, Stanberry is Martin's niece, and certainly one of the family. In fact, her son once asked her, "Momma, why didn't I get to be adopted?" Stanberry is now a Foster Home Developer for CPS in East Texas. "Being able to go into homes and see what a gift [foster care and adoption] is to the child and family warms my heart and brightens my day," Stanberry says. "I think about Susan all the time. I'm walking in her own footsteps."
Susan Ramsey became very close with the families she helped bring together through adoption, sometimes bringing gifts, like this Christmas tree for the Martins.
Kathleen Belanger PhD is an Assistant Professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Her dissertation, The Impact of Religiosity, Religious Support, and CPS Support on Special Needs Adoption: Child, Family, and Parent Outcomes, focuses on issues raised by the Bennett Chapel adoptions. She serves as co-chair of CWLA's National Advisory Committee on Rural Social Services. She also researches, publishes, develops, and evaluates programs related to rural social services, rural cultural competence, and racial disproportionality in child welfare. She can be reached at 936-468-1807 or email@example.com.
This article is dedicated to Susan Ramsey, recipient of CWLA's Outstanding Service Award in 2000, and to all social workers who spend their lives in the miracle business.
For more information about Bennett Chapel Family Ministry, or to purchase the Martins' book, Small Town, Big Miracle, visit www.bcministry.org.
To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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