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Nov 18, 2014

Rural Adoptions: A Different Kind of Rural Trust

Kathleen Belanger, Challenges for Human Services columnistby Kathleen Belanger

November is National Adoption Month, calling to mind the more than 100,000 children in the child welfare system who are waiting to be adopted. In my fall 2013 column (no longer available online), I talked about the importance of finding foster homes for rural children removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect.  However, in honor of National Adoption Month this November, I'd like to highlight three wonderful efforts in rural America to find adoptive homes for these children.

The first is Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Possum Trot, Texas.  This adoption initiative began in 1996 when Donna Martin, wife of Pastor W. C. Martin, first thought about adopting a child from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.  Saying they felt called by God to help the children most in need, Donna and her sister, Diann Sparks, overcame the difficulties of a one-hour drive each way, every week, for 13 weeks to attend every three-hour training session required for adoption.  Not only did the Martins and Diann Sparks adopt, but other African American church members, families and friends adopted 72 African American children over the next few years.  The Martins have received a number of awards and recognitions for "saving a generation."  In his book, Small Town, Big Miracle (with John Fornof, 2007), Bishop W. C. Martin explains, "The world said 'no' to these kids, but Possum Trot said 'yes'.  And the world's a better place for it, with the blessing of 72 kids—each one with a new hope and bright future" (p. 127).  Fifteen years later, Bennett Chapel remains a model for adoption of children from the child welfare system, and a rural beacon of hope.

The second effort I'd like to showcase is the Treehouse Community in rural Easthampton, Mass. The Treehouse Community is part of the "Re-envisioning foster care in America" initiative designed to place children into stable homes supported by a broad base of families.  In 1998, Judy Cockerton, then owner of two successful toy stores in Massachusetts, became aware of the many children in the conservatorship of the Department of Children and Families who were in need of homes.  She and her husband agreed to foster two small sisters, only to discover the profound needs of foster and adoptive parents.  Cockerton recognized the importance of a broad base of involvement and a range of supportive services that communities acting together could provide for children so they could live in loving permanent homes. Cockerton founded an innovative intentional multigenerational community with more than 100 people, ages three to 90, dedicated to providing "lifelong family relationships in supportive communities" in which children from the child welfare system find "not just parents and a home, but also grandparents, playmates and an entire neighborhood."  Cockerton also has been the recipient of a number of awards for her amazing work, including the Purpose Prize for social entrepreneurs and other problem-solvers who are 60 and older.  While the community looks like a typical neighborhood, it houses "elders," (honorary grandparents), families, and 36 adopted children in 60 homes.  Not all families can adopt, but all community members provide support. Treehouse is "a neighborhood built around the concepts of belonging, thriving, and trust," where children move from foster care to adoption, so they are never at risk of  "aging out" of foster care.

The last initiative is less an initiative than the result of a successful collaboration between Adoption Advocacy, a private non-profit agency in South Carolina, and members of rural communities throughout the state.  In the past several years, by building community trust and support, Adoption Advocacy arranged for more than 650 adoptions of children from the child welfare system.   Many of the children are from Ohio, Texas, and other states, but find adoptive homes in rural South Carolina.  And what makes these rural homes so wonderful for children who have been victims of abuse or neglect?  According to Joe Haynes, Director of Adoption Advocacy, "These rural homes provide a safer environment, and a sense of community.  The children can play outside, ride bikes in the country.  At the same time they automatically are adopted into a community, an extended family, and often a church family.  They are at home."  Mr. Haynes finds that the adoptive families support each other and support all the adopted children.

Once again, rural communities exhibit strength, creativity, flexibility, and commitment.  These efforts demonstrate an understanding of the importance of rural connections, and rural support. According to Dr. Ruth McRoy, Professor of Social Work at Boston College and expert in adoption of children from the child welfare system,  "When we think about places to find loving homes for children most in need, we often search in urban areas where agencies are located, where there are larger concentrations of children in need and potential families to care for them.  However, if we don't reach out to rural areas, we may be overlooking some wonderful family resources.  Many have opened  their homes to children with disabilities, children with serious emotional and/or physical challenges, as well as to sibling groups.  This is especially important given that sibling groups are being highlighted as part of the 2014 National Adoption Month Campaign.  Rural communities are excellent placements for siblings because, as we've seen in Bennett Chapel, if one family can't adopt all the siblings, some can be adopted by extended family members or families that belong to the same church, by neighbors and friends, and as a result, siblings remain connected.  Also, given the disproportionate representation of African American children who are in foster care, agencies should consider reaching out to other rural African American church communities, like Bennett Chapel, as a potential resource."

We would all do well to learn from these creative and sustained adoption initiatives, and to be open to the diversity of possible adoptive homes, urban, suburban and rural.  Rural people once again show they can be trusted to care for others in creative, collaborative community settings.  It's time for states and agencies to trust them and, in turn, help them care for the most vulnerable.

Kathleen Belanger, Ph.D., is Professor of Social Work at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and is a member of the RUPRI Human Services Panel, and recipient of CWLA's Champion for Children award in 2005 for her work in rural child welfare. Belanger has published and presented on rural human services issues in a variety of publications and forums. In addition, she has worked for more than 20 years with rural communities, where she has helped found several non-profit organizations and advocated for rural resources.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural Health Information Hub.

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