Diann Sparks hadn’t planned on adopting, until one of her sisters asked her to attend an adoption class in a town 120 miles away from her home in Possum Trot, part of east Texas’ Shelby County. At the time, Sparks had one biological daughter and was a single parent working a full-time job at a chicken plant.
Possum Trot, a deeply religious black Baptist community in a mostly white county, doesn’t show up on Google maps. It has no streetlights, no post office, no grocery store and a lot of dirt roads. Its small church, Bennett Chapel, is a hub that’s provided spiritual and physical support for its members.
The adoption class Sparks and her sister, Donna Martin, attended was the start of a movement. In 1998, Sparks was the first to foster and adopt. Martin began fostering to adopt soon after. Since then, 59 local families have gone through foster and adoption trainings and 26 of them have adopted 70 black and biracial children from the Texas foster care system. Fourteen of the families are from Bennett Chapel. Most of those children are now adults, some with their own families.
Researchers say the adoptions’ successes come from the community’s deep-rooted faith, caseworkers’ hard work, and the commitment of Martin and her husband, the pastor of Bennett Chapel, W.C. Martin.
Faith and Resilience
Researcher Kathleen Belanger, professor emeritus at Stephen F. Austin State University, began studying the community shortly after the first adoptions. She found faith was behind most families’ decisions to adopt. She found that their faith may have contributed to lower stress when parents faced tough times.
“The parents are told in preadoption training of the serious difficulties their child or children have and will continue to have after adoption, and yet they adopt anyway,” Belanger wrote. “These parents find their faith in God central to their lives and essential to their choice to adopt, also a belief which may be viewed as full of hope.”
Randy was 4 years old when he moved in with Sparks in 1998 with his older brother, Joshua. Prior to coming into foster care, the boys were left by themselves for long stretches of time, their 8-year-old brother foraging from trash cans to feed them.
Sparks adopted Randy in 1998 and another boy, Nino, in 1999.
Joshua started staying over at the Martins’ house on weekends when Sparks wasn’t able to care for him. Sparks didn’t want to let Randy or Joshua go, but she couldn’t keep all three boys and care for Joshua’s needs. So Sparks kept Randy and Nino, and the Martins adopted Joshua.
“It was challenging. It was hard sometimes,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like giving up. Sometimes I said, ‘Just come get ‘em, take ‘em back.’ But actually I had to sit down one day and I was reading through Randy’s chart — his file. I read so much stuff until I just closed the book . . . The things that he went through was really touching and I said, ‘This kid here don’t need to go into nobody else’s home.’”
Terri was 9 years old when she came to the Martins from the neighboring town of Nacogdoches. CPS called Donna Martin to provide respite care with the intention of fostering and possibly adopting.
Terri said her biological mom would beat her, force her to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. Her mom’s boyfriend beat her, raped her and burned her with cigarette butts. When her mom suffocated her 15-year-old sister to death and ended up in jail, Terri went into foster care.
The Martins’ home was her 11th placement.
“When we got the kids in, I kept reminding myself of why they came — because of the need,” Martin said. “And never looked at the problem or the issues or whatever they would have to face … This is the reason why you’re in the house — to rewrite your story.”
Race and Poverty in a Rural County
Belanger said what makes Possum Trot unique is the large number of black children adopted, especially considering that, according to the 2015 U.S. Census, 16.8 percent of its households lived below the poverty level.
Black children are disproportionately represented in foster care nationwide. A Child Trends report indicated that 13.8 percent of the U.S. child population was black in 2015. For the same year, the federal Children’s Bureau reported that 24 percent of children in foster care were black.
Though many of the Possum Trot families were lower income, all licensed families met the CPS mandate that foster and adoptive parents be financially stable and able to support each child without the monthly stipend.
The adopted children interviewed for this story, like Terri Martin, said they didn’t feel the effects of poverty in their home.
“I feel like we never was hungry, we never went without clothes on our back,” she said. “Whatever they couldn’t afford, Momma and Daddy made sure we still had. They made up for what the state didn’t send in.”
Ruth McRoy, researcher and lecturer at Boston College School of Social Work, said the close-knit rural community helped alleviate some of the financial, physical and emotional burden.
“These are the things that are characteristic more of rural communities than in urban communities,” she said. “If one family’s having a challenge, another family will often say ‘Send your children over here for a few days while you get some rest.’ It’s just providing that kind of respite and support for one another.”
Support From Within and Without
In 2000, the community started getting media attention. People Magazine wrote an article. CBN’s Orphan’s Promise provided food, after-school tutoring and computers. Oprah donated Christmas presents. Fox’s “Renovate My Family” built the Pineywood Outreach Center with a full-sized basketball court, a library, a playroom and a classroom.
In the early years, the adoptive families got a lot of support from caseworker Susan Ramsey. Researcher Belanger said Ramsey and her supervisor molded their work to the community’s needs, instead of asking the community to change for the CPS system. Ramsey attended church functions and accompanied parents on school visits. She worked with nearby Stephen F. Austin University to provide training resources and an annual conference for the families.
“She was not only flexible, but very culturally competent,” McRoy said. “Her positive interactions, her support, her willingness to always be available to them when they needed help made all the difference.”
When Ramsey died in 2002, another CPS worker stepped in, but today Possum Trot does not have a designated caseworker. Some families in Shelby County continue to foster and adopt, but are not part of the Possum Trot program.
While the community was growing through adoptions, the Martins also worked to ensure families had support to make ends meet. W.C. Martin said at times it was frustrating that the white community didn’t support the black Possum Trot families.
“Despite the frustration, the thing that I think is so noteworthy is the strength that Bishop Martin and his wife displayed through all of this,” McRoy said. “He was determined to make it a successful community and he was able to do so through modeling himself and through a strong religious belief.”
Most adoptions stuck. Where they fell through, children were moved to different families within the community to keep them from re-entering foster care.
A Best-Kept Secret
Both Belanger and McRoy said Bennett Chapel and Possum Trot should be seen as a model for other rural, faith-based communities.
“We think, ‘There’s not resources out in rural America, and these kids have very high needs, and so you have to put them where these resources are,’” Belanger said. “Well, if you’ve got a really, really loving family, sometimes that’s better than all the resources.”
Belanger says the adoptions have opened up the possibility of adoption in other poor, rural communities.
“They inspired other people to adopt and to think about adoptions and to realize that you don’t have to be wealthy,” Belanger said.
To date, other faith-based communities across the U.S. have adopted children in small numbers, like what Belanger has seen in South Carolina and Louisiana. Although some of those were inspired by the Possum Trot adoptions, McRoy said it’s still not a well-known story.
“I would still say that in a lot of areas this is kind of a best-kept secret,” McRoy said. “We need to know more about how this could be replicated in other communities.”
Where Are They Today?
W.C. Martin said the community center is having a hard time paying the utility bills to keep classes going. Some of the parents who adopted have died, others have left the church. Bennett Chapel sees 30-60 families any given Sunday, and it — and faith — continue to serve as a rich part of the community. Some of the children still live in Possum Trot. Others have moved away, across Texas and Louisiana.
As the kids grew older and started wanting to do after-school activities, Sparks’ biological daughter, Shanta, would help drive the kids to school and care for them while Diann worked to provide for her family.
Nino, 24, is a supervisor at a store in La Grange, near Austin, and lives with his girlfriend and his daughter. Randy is 22 and works for a company that rents out commercial building equipment and lives close to Nino.
Donna and W.C. Martin continue to receive awards for their work in the community. They live in nearby Center, Texas. The Martins adopted a total of four children: Joshua, Terri, Tyler and Mercedes. They have two older biological children.
Joshua is 23 and lives in Houston. He’s attending Texas Southern University and is interested in music. He sings, manages and produces.
Tyler, now 22, lives 120 miles away in Lufkin and is in between jobs. He visits home frequently.
Mercedes is 26 and also lives in Lufkin with two daughters. She has lost contact with the family.
Terri, 27, is living in Shreveport, Louisiana, with her fiancé and 4-year-old daughter. She went to cosmetology school after high school and has worked as a pharmacy tech and cosmetologist. She’s currently unemployed and her Medicaid ran out last month. She drives back to Possum Trot twice a month to visit family and attend church.
“It’s one of the greatest feelings knowing that you found parents that really love you,” she said, “that really want you to be a part of their life, want to help you grow, want to help pull you out the struggle and is willing to help you accomplish every goal that you have set in life.”
Beth Cortez-Neavel is a freelance journalist and editor based in Austin, Texas. Her writing focuses on child welfare and mental health.