"No, ma'am," she says softly. "I was in a mental hospital. Because I was hurting myself."
The home from which she was removed was one of abuse and pain. When asked how her new family is different, she replies without hesitation, "They love me."
Terri is one of the 70 children who have been removed from the rolls of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services by the 200-member Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in tiny Possum Trot, Texas.
According to her new father, Rev. W. C. Martin, the congregation isn't just trying to save souls. "We're saving a generation," he says.
They are taking their job seriously. Back in 1997, W.C.'s wife Donna was praying for an end to the grief she felt over the death of her beloved mother, Murtha Cartwright. The unexpected answer to her prayer was one word: Foster.
"When they arrived," W.C. explains, "they were fidgety and jittery and couldn't be still. They were terrified they were going to be beaten, and sure there wasn't going to be enough food."
The therapy they immediately received? Hugs and more hugs. "These children had to realize they aren't a mishap. They are wanted and needed and loved. We let them know how important they are to the body of Christ. We give them love, morals and values. I won't kid you. There are rough days, difficult days. But these kids now have a different perspective. And they have joy. When you see them in church on Sunday, they are joyful!"
According to mom Donna, when other church members saw the glow of satisfaction that she and W.C. experienced, they were eager to know how to foster, too. She called Judy Bowman, a supervisor in the foster program. Judy told them that if they could get ten families to sign up for the class that they could come to Possum Trot instead of the families having to make the 120-mile round trip to Dallas. "We say that to a lot of people," Bowman says, "But ten families is a lot." Not for Bennett Chapel. "When we got there, they had twenty-three families. The folks who came to us from Bennett Chapel were of all types. Many were single. Many worked long hours in factories or the logging industry. Many were struggling to make ends meet. But they were resolute. Of those initial twenty-three families, we have placed children with eighteen!"
Teresa Lathern had thought about adopting after the doctor told her and her husband that their one biological child would likely be their only, but found private adoption to be too expensive. "Then Donna Martin called and asked if I'd consider state adoption. She said she thought I'd be good at it."
Not long after she and her husband were licensed, Teresa got a call. There were five sisters in need of a home.
"All my husband said was, 'Five girls? Five girls?'"
But she had them come over for a visit and after he saw their little faces he couldn't turn them away. "We knew they were ours."
The girls did not come without emotional baggage. They had been severely neglected.
"It isn't easy to take this kind of child into your life," says Bowman, who has worked in Child Protective Services for 26 years. She goes on to explain that in situations of neglect, one of the older children is forced to assume the role of parent. That child will often subconsciously try to sabotage a new family situation because she sees her role being "usurped" by the new parent. This happened with one of the Lathern children-a little seven-year-old girl who had been the "mom." In this case, Teresa was helped by her own sister who took the little girl for a while, gave her special attention and helped teach her that she could just relax and be a child.
The church and the Martins have, in effect, set up a support network for the kids. "The Martins are like the godparents of all these children," says Judy Bowman. If a parent is temporarily overwhelmed, Donna and W.C. will turn up on their doorstep to take the children for a few days to give the parents a little breather from the constant demands of a large, new family. And the other families are following their lead. They swap babysitting and advice that they get in their respective counseling sessions. The children play together and are tutored together. It's not like there's one child among them with a 'secret, shameful past.' They all come from difficult backgrounds; it's discussed and dealt with. "Sometimes if a single family takes in a child from a difficult background, their extended family thinks they are heroic but misguided. When that child starts to act out, the extended family pulls away. At Bennett Chapel, when a child acts out, everyone understands. They deal with the heart of the problem instead of just the behavior," explains Bowman.
That's what the Martins and the other families have committed to. "The Martins are the real deal," says Richard Burnett, supervisor of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services. "What these people are doing is not easy, but they are in it for the long haul."
"One more thing I'll say-as a state agency, we don't endorse any faith or creed," adds Bowman. "But these folks in Bennett Chapel, they really believe God is calling them to do this, and that God gives them the strength to persevere. They are passing that belief on to the children, and it's giving them a real steady foundation. I've seen it in action.It is a lifeline. It really is."
"You wouldn't believe the change that has occurred in our church over the last three years," smiles Donna Martin. "Before, if you came in on a Sunday morning, you'd find us friendly but a bit proper. These days-wow! There's a spirit of joy and energy in the place, and even the adults have become a lot more relaxed. There are kids, kids, just everywhere."
"This isn't our doing," adds W.C. "This was already ordained, in God's divine plan for us. We just had to get ourselves in position to be ready for all these.blessings!"
The Martins feel that many other churches could "catch the vision" and they're happy to travel to visit churches and explain what fostering and adopting requires.
Mercedes Martin, now 8, says that Adam and Eve is her favorite Bible story. "He ates the fruit!" she explains happily of Adam, "and had to hide. I used to have to hide, cause I'd get beat. But not any more."
"Why, what's different about the Martins?"
"They love me," she says simply.
And that seems to be the only answer she needs.