ADOPTING A NEW SENSE OF PLACE

Ruth McRoy’s research into two rural initiatives reveals a model that could reform adoption policies and practices
Church group with Bishop Martin and Donna Martin in the center.

Church group with Bishop Martin and Donna Martin in the center.  (Photo by O. Rufus Lovett)

In America, the zip code in which you live can say a lot about the opportunities afforded to you. Imaginary lines form zones defined by demographic clusters, often as racially and ethnically segregated neighborhoods, that vary greatly from city to city, town to town, even block to block. Inherent in these variances are severe inequities in income, access to education and healthcare, and prospects for social mobility.

Perhaps more than anything, race- and place-based inequality affects our nation’s children, as adoption expert Professor Ruth McRoy is well aware. Many are born under nearly insurmountable odds, even when they have a strong family support system; for those without parents, the window of opportunity very rarely opens, and when it does, only ever so slightly.

In nearly every state across the country, these odds are more heavily stacked against children of color, who are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system. According to the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, while African American children represent 13.8 percent of those under 18 nationwide, 24 percent of all youth in foster care are black. The numbers are similarly skewed in regard to Latinos (17 percent and 22 percent).

Over the past few years, McRoy, long a leader in the field of adoption advocacy, has focused her attention on a new rural model that she believes could have a major positive impact on reducing the number of children of color in foster care who are awaiting stable homes. It’s an idea based in the work of two leaders in two small Southern towns more than 800 miles apart, whose very different zip codes actually say something very similar about the potential for a new kind of adoptive society.

Bishop W.C. Martin from Possum Trot, Texas, and Joe Haynes, from Spartanburg, South Carolina, have both established compassionate communities devoted to providing families to children without permanent homes: Martin, in his role as pastor of Bennett Chapel Baptist Church, and Haynes, as founder of the agency Adoption Advocacy of South Carolina.

ruth-and-bishop

McRoy and Martin

For the people of Bennett Chapel, the project began in 1997, as Martin’s wife Donna grieved following the death of her mother. According to the bishop, the Lord spoke to Donna and encouraged her to give to a child in need in the way that her mother had given to her. A year later, after taking classes in how to provide adoptive care, the Martins brought Tyler and Mercedes into their home.

It soon became clear to Bishop Martin that there was a “biblical imperative” to adopt children without families, and he shared this message with his congregants. Remarkably, many followed suit: In total, 23 African American families at Bennett Chapel have adopted 77 African American children, ranging from newborn to 11 years old at the time of adoption. They’re now all between the ages of 10 and 26. A dozen are in college. It has been, by all accounts, a great success for this faith community.

Of course, when it all began in 1997, it was by no means a given that the foster care system would even give the Bennett Chapel congregation an opportunity to adopt children, many of whom were living in large cities across Texas. Possum Trot is remote—a tiny unincorporated rural and working class community without an official population, a sort of “suburb” to Shelbyville, itself an unincorporated town of just over 3,000 people. Little Nacogdoches is the nearest city. Houston is nearly 200 miles away. Possum Trot is poor, medically underserved, and lacks basic amenities that many of us take for granted, such as Internet and cell phone coverage.

“Social workers had their doubts if the rough and tough kids from the foster system could make it in this tiny community,” remembers Bishop Martin. “Could the people here really pull this off?”

After a strong response to adoption training requests impressed a child welfare worker named Susan Ramsey, who would soon become an honorary member of their community and an advocate for Bennett Chapel’s role in adopting Texas’ youth, Possum Trot got its chance. And the town has never looked back.

Starting with just one family
The people of Spartanburg and its surrounding towns have pulled off a similar success story, thanks largely to the guidance of Haynes, himself an adoptive father who decided to establish Adoption Advocacy, a licensed nonprofit organization, in 1999 to fill what he saw as a critical need. Since its inception, Adoption Advocacy has placed 700 children from 24 states in families living within a 30- to 40-square mile area in South Carolina. About 80 percent of the children placed with families through his network are African American, says Haynes.

Adoption Advocacy does no advertising. Families come to Haynes based on word of mouth, usually through the network of the dozens of churches dotting the small towns located in the area. As in the case of Bennett Chapel, it all started with one family, and grew.

This opportunity for growth is a major reason that McRoy has devoted so much of her time getting to know these remarkable communities. If Possum Trot and Spartanburg could become havens for so many children needing homes, she wondered, could other rural enclaves adopt similar models to find homes for the more than 100,000 children who are awaiting adoption nationwide?

Advocating for a new model
In collaboration with Martin, Haynes, and Professor Kathleen Belanger of Stephen F. Austin State University, McRoy is currently conducting a research project analyzing the strengths of these rural adoption models, towards finding ways to bring similar models to places and spaces throughout the country. Much of the research surrounds the network of social supports that exists in these small, close-knit towns, and how these supports help to build self-esteem in African American youth, promote positive racial identity, and help to maintain and develop relationships that the children will be able to build on as they move forward in life.

“We’re sharing the stories of Bennett Chapel and Adoption Advocacy in order to encourage social workers to think outside the box when looking for adoptive families,” explains McRoy. “It’s in places like Possum Trot and Spartansburg where I believe we will continue to find families to provide a sense of permanency for the more than 24,000 African American children currently awaiting adoption.”

By all accounts, McRoy has been a major force for ensuring that this message is heard, loud and clear.

“Ruth constantly amazes me,” says Haynes. “She’s just as comfortable speaking in front of a thousand people as she is spending time in the homes of my relatively poor families, singing along with their three adopted teens. Wherever she is, she fits in and makes everything work so well.”

“Ruth has taken our work to the next level to let people know what a church in the woods can do,” adds Bishop Martin. “I’m excited to see her present this study to other states and other communities, even to other churches, to let them know they can duplicate what we’ve done here.”

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