Featured Article: How one small community found families for 82 Texas foster children

By Kathleen Belanger

Diann Sparks was the first parent from the Bennett Chapel community to adopt from the foster care system. Her sons Randy, left, and Nino are thriving. When asked what the future holds for her family, Diann replied, “I want to adopt another child!”

When Mercedes was just 2 years old, she lost her mother. Without anyone else to care for her, she was placed in foster care for two years. Mercedes remembers being alone, even on the playground. “One day, a lady came to see me at school,” she says. “Then she started coming every day. One day she asked me why I was playing all by myself, and she said, ‘I’m going to adopt you one day.’ When I first came [to the Martin home] I was afraid. They introduced me to my sister and brother and I started thinking, ‘This is a family.’ It took me a while, but by the time I was 8, I wasn’t afraid at all.” Now Mercedes laughs as she recounts her years in her family, her love for her parents, Donna and W. C. Martin, and her home in a loving community. At 16, she’s a junior in high school and hoping to graduate a year early. She has dreams to be an anesthesiologist or a pediatrician, but definitely not a social worker–too much paperwork!

Since 1997, 28 families in the Possum Trot, Texas, community have adopted 82 foster children, including Mercedes. Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church provided the fertile grounds and the homes to accept, nurture, and raise these children. Is this a unique event, or a brilliant adoption initiative whose elements of faith, community, creative problem solving, and collaboration can lead other communities of faith to adopt the many children languishing in foster care?

Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church is located on a dirt road in an unincorporated community known as Possum Trot, approximately five miles from Shelbyville (population 215), and 15 miles from the county seat, Center (population 5,678). The closest “major” city is Nacogdoches 40 miles east (population 29,953). The families of Possum Trot know each other, and church is central in the lives of many. Pastor W. C. Martin leads the church, and his wife, Donna, is referred to as the “first lady.” Her role, as she explains in the new book Small Town, Big Miracle, is “to pray for people, encourage them, go to prayer meetings, help lead the worship service, visit the sick, be strong for others, give people hope.” But in 1996, the death of her mother, Murtha–who had shown love even while raising Donna and her siblings with little money, no electricity, and no running water–left her empty and hopeless. While grieving the loss of her mother, Donna looked to God for help; it was then that she felt inspired to foster and adopt children in need.

Getting Involved

Donna knew nothing about child welfare, foster care, or adoption. She found a number in the phone book and located the nearest training for fostering and adopting. The closest PRIDE training was more than 60 miles away from her home, but she and her sister, Diann Sparks, attended the required three-hour trainings for 13 weeks. They learned about abuse and neglect, the difficulties of fostering and adopting, and techniques to handle children who have suffered. But they also learned that in 1997 there were 21,007 abused and neglected children in substitute care in Texas, many free for adoption and waiting for adoptive homes, disproportionately African American. Midway through the training, CPS adoption caseworkers came to be linked with prospective parents. Donna remembers spotting Susan Ramsey immediately, saying to her sister: “She’s our worker! I just know it!” At the end of that session, Donna and Diann were introduced to Susan, the child welfare worker who would connect them to their children and become an indelible member of their community and resident in their hearts.

Diann, a single woman, adopted the first child to come to the Bennett Chapel community, 4-year-old Nino. “I had no idea that so many children didn’t have [permanent] homes. I thought everyone was just like me, with a mother and a dad,” she says. She also had never considered adoption herself. She lived in a two-bedroom mobile home, and never dreamt that the state would approve such modest living quarters. “But Susan didn’t come in with white gloves on. She came in with love and concern for me and the children. She knew that I could take care of Nino,” Diann says. The Martins, birth parents of two, adopted two children after that, Mercedes and Tyler. They struggled to parent children with numerous difficulties, who had never experienced constancy in care. Diann then fostered two brothers, Randy and Joshua, but found as a single parent that she could only provide adequate care for one. “But those children had been through so much already,” she says. “I just couldn’t let them go!” Diann eventually adopted Randy and the Martins adopted Joshua, a situation that everyone, including the boys, has remained happy with since.

The Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.

Other members of the church and community began to wonder if they, too, should adopt. Pastor Martin, a caring and charismatic leader, gave encouragement and discussed challenges from the pulpit, and the children and parents were living testimonies to the triumph of love. Pastor Martin asked for training closer to their community, but CPS said they could offer training at the church only if 10 more families were interested. Twenty-three families signed up for training, and eventually, over the next 10 years, 28 families–members and friends of Bennett Chapel–adopted 82 children in foster care.

In the fall of 1999, Bennett Chapel began to receive attention from the outside world. Following an article in the Houston Chronicle, Bennett Chapel was highlighted on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and later on Good Morning America,48 Hours, and The 700 Club. A church in California provided financial assistance when it was most needed by the families and continues to partner with Pastor Martin. In 2004, Fox Network’s Renovate My Family chose the Martins’ house for renovation, but expanded the focus to include the surprise construction of a 10,000-square-foot Pineywoods Outreach Center equipped with science, library, recreation, and multimedia facilities with afterschool and summer enrichment activities. Last fall, the center housed 200 evacuees from Hurricane Ike.

What We Can Learn

Although the adoptive families have been through serious struggles, had to reinvent new lives to care for all the children, and even have had serious health repercussions, not one of the adoptions has been disrupted, and all of the children are faring well. Two are in now in college, two are MVPs in basketball, and two are MVPs in football. They are class leaders, members of the honor society, and junior ushers at church. They sing in the choir and participate in teen activities.

According to recent Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System statistics and estimates, 129,000 children are waiting in the U.S. foster care system with adoption as their goal. Nearly one-third (32%) are African American, disproportionate to the population. And yet nearly all the children adopted through Bennett Chapel, and nearly all adoptive parents, are African American. How have these outcomes been achieved in such a small community?

Faith and Adoption

Donna Martin with her daughter, Mercedes.

According to Robert Hill, researcher and author of Synthesis of Research on Disproportionality: An Update, “Faith-based beliefs are responsible for many positive outcomes for African American children and families. The Black Church has always served as an extended family to provide vital emotional, social, and economic support, and it was an African American priest–Pastor George Clements–who in 1980 started One Church, One Child to encourage more black congregations to adopt African American children who were languishing in foster care,” Hill continues. “The outstanding accomplishments of Bennett Chapel, with the enlightened support of progressive child welfare administrators and agencies, continue this strong tradition.” Ruth McRoy, Ruby Lee Piester Centennial Professor Emerita and Senior Research Fellow of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, agrees. “Reverend Martin and his wife truly practice what they preach. Through opening their home to children needing permanence through adoption they modeled ‘saving a generation’ ministry. Bennett Chapel families followed suit and opened their hearts and homes to children needing families,” says McRoy. “They are truly making a difference for children and demonstrating that African American families can and do adopt…. We can learn much from Bennett Chapel about recruiting adoptive families.”

The strong faith tradition of African American communities may not only encourage adoptions and provide social support for families, but may also help improve outcomes. Recent research that included Bennett Chapel families supports these conclusions, finding that faith was related to reduced stress in adoption, possibly providing effective religious coping strategies when facing adoptive stressors. “Religious faith often inspires people to sacrifice their own self-interests for the interests of others,” says Harold Koenig, Director and Founder of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health and Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University. “That motivation–serving others for faith-based reasons–often protects people from psychological and social stresses, and in this instance, could protect them from the stresses involved in adoption.”

The Rural Advantage

While rural communities tend not to provide the economic, human, and physical capital more readily available in urban centers, they often provide a wealth of social capital. Being rural, community members know each other very well, have systems of relationships that can be traced back hundreds of years, and are used to coping with challenges and resolving problems fairly independently, with novel solutions that are not dependent on resources. Unconsciously, they build their own pre-adoptive, adoptive, and post-adoptive resources from all parts of their community, in venues that more traditional models may not consider. And when a resource is not available, it is just one more hardship with which they are already used to dealing. “Especially today, when innovative public sector solutions must be found to do even more with ever less resources, rural communities must find ways to link public, private, and philanthropic investment streams,” says Charles Fluharty, Founding Director and current Vice President for Policy Programs at the Rural Policy Research Institute. “The collaborative, integrative, and innovative spirit which is the hallmark of Bennett Chapel highlights why rural places are a unique laboratory, and perfect incubator, for extraordinary solutions to serious and complex social service challenges.”

Faith and Rurality at Bennett Chapel

More specifically, the families of Bennett Chapel believe that every child is God’s child, so that all have an obligation to provide the same love and care to the child as they would to God. They also believe that God can do anything, and as a rural community, are willing to be part of a miracle. Parents and children effectively use religious coping strategies to deal with everyday problems and major difficulties, and they believe a child is not limited to the fears, pains, medications, or behaviors that he or she begins with. It is not behaviors or scores that are the ultimate target, but the ability to give and accept love, to treat others with love and respect, and to love and accept oneself that are the mainstays of their faithful lives. “The hardest thing is when they regress,” says Donna. “They start asking why they’re here and think they aren’t making progress. So you cuddle them up in your arms and walk them through their blessings. You remind them of what used to happen and show them that those things aren’t happening any more!”

One need only look at Glen and Theresa Lathan. The Lathans had one birth child, a nephew, and the child of a friend living with them when they considered adoption. Even as they were being trained and assessed in 1998, the child welfare worker called Theresa and asked them to consider adopting five sibling girls. “I thought she was crazy,” says Theresa. The worker persuaded them to have the girls visit for a weekend. When it was time for the children to return to foster care that Monday, the girls wanted to stay with the Lathans. “Two weeks later they were ours,” says Theresa. The Lathans eventually adopted three more children. With two children now in college, Theresa still washes four loads of clothing every day. “You never stop washing, you never stop cooking, you never stop cleaning,” she says. “The girls tell us all the time how much they love and appreciate us.”

The Lathans, along with 27 other families in this rural community, reached out to care for children because of their great compassion and their even greater faith. Are they really unique? Is there no other rural church or small community that would do the same? To date, no other has. “The families of Bennett Chapel are an example of the diverse solutions to rural service delivery challenges which are being developed in creative, place-specific models across the geography of rural America,” says Fluharty. “Sadly, sufficient research has not been done to enable us to lift up and replicate these very special initiatives, so that other rural communities, and our urban counterparts, can benefit from these successes.” But the Martins are hopeful. They continue to visit interested churches, and offer their help and support. Donna’s advice–“fall in love with Jesus; then everything else will be all right”–shows her enduring commitment to adoption and the strength she finds in her faith.

At a recent visit to Possum Trot, Diann reminisced as she watched Nino, now 16 years old, play basketball. Nino is tall, smart, handsome, a fine basketball player, and a wonderful son. “When I first brought Nino home with me, everyone asked, ‘Who would give up a child like that?’ I couldn’t understand it. And then one day Nino asked me, ‘Momma, why did it take you so long to come and get me?’ I told him, ‘Nino, it took me this long to find you,'” she says. “It’s a blessing from God that these children came into my home. Now that they’re with me, I’ll never let them go.”

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 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 orkbelanger@sfasu.edu.

For more information about Bennett Chapel Family Ministry, or to purchaseSmall Town, Big Miracle, visit www.bcministry.org

In the next issue, Voice will publish a follow-up article about rural cultural competence, worker support, and a flexible agency.

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