African-American Children Thriving in Mennonite Foster Families

By Carolyn Davis; The Philadelphia Inquirer | The Tuscaloosa News, January 7, 2012 | Go to article overview

African-American Children Thriving in Mennonite Foster Families


Carolyn Davis; The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Tuscaloosa News


PHILADELPHIA | Janelle and Jasmine Newswanger lead simple, contented lives in one of Pennsylvania's Mennonite communities.

The 17-year-old twins drive a horse-drawn buggy, wear long dresses and white head coverings, and see their friends at church on Sundays.

Done with education at 14, after finishing eighth grade, Jasmine works as a teacher's aide, and Janelle helps her mother around the house, speaking Pennsylvania Dutch and English.

The girls blend in with the people in their lives, set apart in only one way.

Janelle and Jasmine are African-American.

They are among about 100 children, most of them black, born to women who were incarcerated at Pennsylvania prisons and sent by their mothers to Mennonite foster families in central Pennsylvania as part of an informal caretaking program. About 29 remain in Mennonite homes.

The children navigate two worlds as they grow up in white insular cultures.

Some, like Janelle and Jasmine, have been with Mennonite families for years and ultimately were adopted. Others continue in a temporary status as their birth mothers struggle with addiction, the law and their parenting roles.

These young lives upend and bend notions of community, family, identity -- and what makes a happy, healthy childhood when birth parents are unavailable.

The popular image of Mennonites is of stoic, white followers in the countryside. Yet blacks, originally recruited by missionaries, have been in the flock for years, including in Philadelphia and other cities.

In 1897, the first African-Americans in the United States were baptized as Mennonites and joined a Juniata County church, said historian Tobin Miller Shearer, a Mennonite and assistant professor of history at the University of Montana who studies interactions between white and African American Mennonites.

Now, he said, "There seems to be a predilection, or at least a tendency, for conservative white Mennonites to be engaged in the practice of adoption across race lines."

Good intentions fuel the caretaking, Shearer said, but, "Hosts are not equipped themselves to equip their children to live within a racist society."

Debate roils around transracial adoptions and fostering in general. Are youngsters better served by going to a permanent home as soon as possible, or by waiting for a same-race household? That question also hovers over the children from the Philadelphia region who live in rural Pennsylvania.

Ruth Newswanger and her husband are Old Order Mennonites, who shun cars, TVs, computers and cellphones at their Cumberland County, Pa., home.

Jasmine and Janelle's birth mother, a Philadelphian, was in prison elsewhere in the state when the girls were born and the Newswangers got a call from a church friend involved in the prison ministry. Would they care for the babies?

The Newswangers, who have four biological children, said yes, acting on their belief that "you should share what you have," Ruth, 55, said.

The twins twice returned briefly to their biological mother, the second time for a year when they were about 2 years old. Relatives sent them back both times.

When the Newswangers finally adopted them two years ago, the girls were elated.

"We could write our last name Newswanger," Jasmine said.

Along with their name, they share a daily routine.

"We milk cows every morning and every evening. We also did some discing this year," Jasmine said, referring to farm equipment that prepares soil for planting.

One evening, the twins and Ruth were preparing dinner. "Janelle, du wenig mei nei." Put in a little more, Ruth said, and Janelle added baked beans to the spaghetti soup.

Before dinner, the girls went to a market owned by the family of some friends. The friends, two white sisters, and the twins instantly smiled when they saw each other, and all four began chattering and giggling.

Janelle and Jasmine were the only black children at school, which didn't bother them. …

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