Mommy Nearest

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One in ten.

That’s the proportion of children in central Harlem who have been put in foster care, living in someone else’s house because the courts have decided that their own parents are unfit to care for them. In 1997, it amounted to more than 3,000 children in that one neighborhood alone.

It’s an appalling statistic, but not an isolated one. In other parts of the city–all of them poor, and overwhelmingly African-American and Latino–a sizeable number of children have been removed from their homes by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. In Morrisania, it’s one in 12. In Mott Haven and Hunts Point, Bed-Stuy and Brownsville, about 6 percent of all the neighborhood’s kids have been uprooted and sent to a new home, which could be anywhere in the city or even outside of it. Just 12 percent of children citywide are in foster care in the neighborhood they came from.

These children have literally been taken away, not just removed from their parents but ripped out of a neighborhood, an entire world. What they get is a new routine that often requires weekly visits to a foster care agency’s headquarters, an alien place that may be downtown, in another borough or outside city lines. Doctors and therapists, usually part of this new regime, call for other trips to other strange places. When foster children do see their parents again, it’s for short supervised visits in an office-turned-playroom at the child welfare agency.

That’s all about to change. Starting in June, New York’s 33,000 foster children are supposed to be able to leave their families without leaving home. In this ambitious overhaul of the child welfare system, ACS has asked about 60 private, nonprofit child welfare agencies to transform themselves from centralized bureaucracies into institutions that are a deep and integral part of neighborhood life, as much a part of the local fabric as schools, firehouses and police precincts.

Under the new system, distressed families will be able to turn to child welfare centers within walking or bus distance from their homes, where they will get help coping, through counseling, classes and a place for the kids to go when their parents need a break. If ACS decides children must be put in foster care for their own safety, those same centers become their one-stop shops for counseling, medical care and visits with their parents. Parents, too, will have local access to services like drug treatment and parenting classes that they must attend in order to get their kids back, making it more likely they’ll actually go.

And in the vision of ACS Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, the glue holding everything together is the neighborhood itself: the neighbors, teachers, clergy and shopkeepers who know a family, are familiar with its problems and can help ACS cook up a remedy. No longer will protecting children be a mere government service; now, it’s a community’s obligation to itself.

This radical plan is that rare thing in the child welfare world: something almost everyone, from parents’ rights advocates to Mayor Giuliani, agrees is a good idea. Its principles were devised not by bureaucrats but child welfare experts from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Los Angeles, Cleveland and other cities have already made these ideas work.

But for child welfare to succeed as a neighborhood business in New York, children are going to have to find foster homes nearby. As ACS officials are fond of saying, kids from Mott Haven will no longer end up in Woodhaven. That also means that child welfare workers in Mott Haven will have to find many new foster parents willing and able to do the job.

It won’t be easy. In that South Bronx neighborhood, the majority of families live on public assistance, and more than a third are in crowded public housing.

“They’re struggling as it is,” says Elizabeth Garcia, who is in charge of finding new foster homes for the St. Christopher’s agency in Harlem and the South Bronx. “How are you going to ask people to be foster parents who are struggling themselves?”

It’s no trivial question. Being a foster parent is an enormous responsibility, one that demands resources many adults in poor neighborhoods don’t have: spare time and space, and money to fall back on. Children in foster care have often been through harrowing experiences that translate into distrust, tantrums and worse. For their trouble, foster parents get about $17 a day for each child, which is supposed to cover all expenses.

“We get less than babysitters!” marvels Julia Boyd, a Crown Heights grandmother who has been a foster parent to 18 children over the last 15 or so years; she has adopted three of them. “For that, you’ve got to wash, cook, clean after them. It’s a 26-hour-a-day job.” Long hours and terrible pay are not the only reasons good foster parents are hard to find. In neighborhoods like Mott Haven, many residents see ACS as the arbitrary authority that snatches children from struggling mothers, not a helping hand that saves families and repairs communities. “There are a lot of people who are afraid of having their children taken, who think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,” observes Woody Henderson, chair of the ACS committee of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Not coincidentally, Mott Haven now has only about half as many foster care slots as it does children who will need them. Taking care of other people’s troubled children is a job that most of us wouldn’t want under any circumstances–and one that some desperate people are prepared to take for the money. ACS is in the middle of revolutionizing foster care. But to make it work, it will have to convince thousands of qualified new conscripts to volunteer for the cause, in neighborhoods where child welfare authorities are about as popular these days as the NYPD.

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Many children in foster care are escaping abuse or truly appalling conditions. But many others are there for reasons that have more to do with poverty than malice. ACS commonly removes children because of decrepit housing, inadequate medical care and other unintended threats to their well-being. For every child in the foster care as a result of abuse, nine are there because of neglect–and city investigators too often fail to distinguish between symptoms of neglect and those of poverty, say lawyers who represent parents in Family Court.

As a result, there’s a close correlation between a neighborhood’s poverty rate and the proportion of children who go into foster care. In East New York, where 30 percent of people live in poverty, 3 percent of kids are in foster care. Nearby Canarsie, where 9 percent live under the poverty line, sends less than one percent of its kids into the child welfare system.

But there’s also a close correlation between poverty and the absence of the very resources foster children need–most glaringly, places for them to live. Far from having suitable bedrooms to spare, many residents in these neighborhoods live in overcrowded or decrepit apartments. In the Bronx’s University Heights, where there are hundreds more foster children than foster homes, about 30 percent of households are already overcrowded, according to U.S. Census. The figures may even underestimate the scope of the problem.

In Harlem, more than 75 percent of apartments are in fair to poor condition–and there, children outnumber foster homes by about three to one. Throughout the South Bronx, there are twice as many children sent to foster care as there are homes that take in foster children. By contrast, eastern Queens, with many single-family houses and a large population of retired civil servants living on pensions, has historically been something of a foster care dormitory, hosting about twice as many foster kids as it produces.

“Given the history, it’s very understandable where the families are,” says Jan Florie, director of services for the Children’s Aid Society. Her agency works in Harlem, Morrisania and East Tremont, among other neighborhoods. “The reality in New York City is that you find the space you need is in the outer boroughs, where there’s more room, and the housing stock is in better shape.”

Children’s Aid is looking into ways of fixing up housing conditions to make more Bronx and Harlem homes suitable, but it’s not simple. “If we’re considering an apartment and a toilet is backed up, that’s bad for kids,” says Florie. Landlords are frequently unresponsive to pleas for repairs, and tenants are often unwilling to antagonize their landlords, for fear of losing their apartments.

Meanwhile, public housing has been a wash, because the city housing authority will not let people interested in becoming foster parents move to bigger apartments. In Cleveland, where Florie used to work, child welfare officials struck a deal with the local housing authority to move prospective foster parents into larger apartments. No such luck in New York (though ACS has reportedly discussed the idea internally). “You have to automatically not consider a lot of people in public housing who could be excellent foster parents,” laments Florie. “It’s chicken and egg–you can’t be licensed before you get housing and can’t get housing without a license.”

If the poorest residents of these neighborhoods don’t have the space, those with more resources don’t always have the time. This April, ACS finally restored guaranteed child care funding for foster parents, a move that will hopefully make it easier for 9-to-5ers to sign up. But state-sponsored babysitting money, once a lifeline, was eliminated in 1995. Agencies now require foster parents to sign up their own friends and family as their backups.

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As serious as the physical obstacles are to finding new foster parents, the psychic ones may be more stubborn. Qualified and caring foster parents aren’t scarce. Ones who aren’t already frustrated with the child welfare system are becoming harder to find–and in neighborhoods, word gets around fast.

In East New York, a lot of people know Greta Day, and have heard her story. In her nearly nine years as a foster parent, she cared for 32 children in the large house she shared with her husband. At the height of the crack epidemic, when hundreds of babies languished in the hospitals, a foster care agency would send her infants straight from the maternity ward, born with crack addiction, HIV, syphilis. One day, a van arrived with three newborns strapped in. “They just kept bringing them,” Day recalls wryly.

Besides the basics of parenting, Day was reponsible for getting all of them to medical appointments and regular visits with their mothers in downtown Brooklyn. An informal neighborhood network, through which she exchanged babysitting, support and advice with other foster parents, helped her cope with the craziness.

Like a lot of foster parents, Day is matter-of-fact about why she took on such a saintly obligation. “I have a big love for kids,” she shrugs, “especially those who are not so fortunate to have a mommy.”

Her main concern was bringing structure and emotional support to children who had been through hell. “Some will bounce back and be a child. Some are so hurt they don’t want to talk, and they lash out at you,” Day says. “You can’t get mad or angry. You just have to take it one step at a time. You leave them alone or change the subject–you say, ‘Let’s make some fudge!'”

But one day in 1989, her older children–seven foster children and three kids she had already adopted–didn’t come back from school. That afternoon, an agency caseworker who showed up at her house told her why: They had been pulled out of school because one of them reported that Day had hit her. The worker then took her three infant foster children as well.

Day denies that she ever hit the girl who reported her. She insists that the child was looking for revenge after Day forbade her from sleeping over at a friend’s. (False claims are not uncommon; a record 1,912 reports of abuse or neglect were made against foster parents last year, only 14 percent of which were found to have possible basis.) A Family Court judge eventually cleared her of wrongdoing and returned her three adopted children to her. Then she became a foster parent again…briefly.

This time, a troubled boy repeatedly attempted to set the house on fire, and Day couldn’t bring herself to give him prescribed medication to calm him down. “It mummified him, a six-year-old kid. You don’t drug kids like that,” she says. Again, her children were removed, this time for medical neglect. At this point, Day decided there was no way she’d take on any new foster kids.

By the time she won her adopted children back, they were rebellious teenagers, accustomed from living in a group home to staying out late and doing as they pleased. She was unable to handle them and, overwhelmed and heartbroken, put them back into foster care.

Though technically she had won all her cases, Day felt like her years of work had been declared worthless. “I was chopped liver,” says Day. “When the system sees nothing about you as a parent, you feel tainted.”

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Not many foster parents go through the extremes Day did, but her feelings of alienation are common. Few people who’ve met a foster parent have illusions of what it takes, even under the best of circumstances. A national survey found that 40 percent of all foster parents quit in their first year, most of them complaining of lousy pay and bad treatment.

Besides the joys and trials of parenthood, foster parents must bring children to a battery of regular appointments, including weekly visits with their birth parents; attend numerous training sessions; provide their own cribs and supplies (diapers are paid for); maintain their homes impeccably under the watch of inquisitive caseworkers; and, now, serve as mentors for their foster children’s birth families. Under a new state law, they are also fingerprinted, and everyone in their household must undergo a criminal background check. For all that, the basic stipend is about $500 a month. Kids with more complicated problems, like HIV or mental retardation, bring up to $1,200 a month.

Taking care of neighborhood kids isn’t the only change that’s hit foster parents lately. In 1995, Governor George Pataki slashed the budget for child welfare services, and foster parents took a 10 percent pay cut. In addition to babysitting reimbursements, summer vacations for veteran foster parents have been eliminated. So, too, has cash for beds, strollers and other pricey but essential items.

The other problem, foster parents say, is making sure they get paid their full paycheck. The state has a fair hearing system in place for pay disputes; last year, of the 978 parents that went to hearing, 853 won outright or by default. Even so, many still don’t get results. In November 1999, the state and city settled a federal class-action suit brought by Legal Aid and the Welfare Law Center, which charged that even after winning fair hearings, foster parents often didn’t get their due. The city and state must now pay up, plowing through a backlog that amounts to at least a thousand claims.

It’s not surprising, then, that finding foster parents is harder than it used to be. “Traditionally, you could count on referrals from other foster parents,” says Michael Schild, whose company Marketing Dynamics runs a foster parent recruitment hotline. “But what you see in New York City, the economy is so good, people have full-time jobs. The pool of good foster parents has dramatically declined.”

Schild’s most reliable recruits, he says, are people on public assistance. Though no one collects hard figures, agency foster care directors estimate that only about a third of their foster parents have jobs. Many of the rest are on welfare, SSI and other kinds of public aid. That’s one reason why some conservatives slam the child welfare system as another form of welfare. In purely economic terms, it is: to a household living on less than $13,000 a year, a foster care stipend can be a big help. Though the agencies that place foster children don’t like to talk about it, caseworkers, attorneys and foster parents themselves report that the money is absolutely a motivating factor for many.

But foster parents say the assumption that they’re just in it for the money leads caseworkers to devalue their hard work. Even worse, it makes the parents seem expendable. Two years ago, Veronica Jacobs went through an experience something like Day’s: With little warning, a caseworker took two of her foster children away.

Jacobs had cared for them for two years, shuttling them from Flatbush up to the agency’s Westchester office for visits with their mother. And while she was having a hard time dealing with her preschool boy Robert’s extreme tantrums, she hoped her agency would come through with its promise for child care vouchers so she could keep sending him to therapeutic day care–she was tired of paying $90 a week out of her own pocket.

Instead, she got a letter saying that she was not certified to take care of children with heavy emotional needs. Her caseworker said they were moving the children to a home where the foster parent was interested in adopting them. A few months later, Jacobs reports, she saw the siblings on Maury Povich, presented as kids who needed to be adopted.

It was a crushing experience. “I feel the plight of [birth] mothers who have their kids taken away,” says Jacobs. As for ACS and the private agencies, “They treat me and other foster mothers with scorn. They just use us.”

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If the job is so terrible, why bother? Julia Boyd has some standard reasons. She loves kids, and she obviously loves being appreciated–she says she’d feel lonely without them. But her commitment is bigger than that. Boyd says it’s nothing less than trying to keep her community intact, and helping make sure another generation of black children is not lost.

An estimated 73 percent of the children in the system are African-American. Fewer than 3 percent are white. “These are black kids, taken from their mothers. Half of them shouldn’t even have been taken away. These are our kids,” Boyd says, with emphasis on the “our.” “I’m in this for one thing: to take poor black children that other people didn’t want.”

Other foster parents say the same thing, says Bertha Lewis of ACORN, which is organizing a union of foster parents [see sidebar]. “People of color believe it’s their duty to take care of our children,” she says. “People say, I just have to do it.”

It’s a paradox that the new neighborhood-based plan will only amplify. These parents provide a priceless service to kids, but to do it, they must work for the very institution that so often appears to single out poor black and Latino families as deviant.

“The system was devised by and for people in middle-class communities,” contends the National Action Network’s Henderson. “But it’s affecting people in poor and working-class communities, because they have different ways. Middle-class people can pay a baby-sitter. If people in poor communities have an emergency, they sometimes have to leave their kids alone. ACS calls that neglect.”

In a big shift, top child welfare officials have started to publicly admit that the agency has a bad reputation in minority neighborhoods and recognize that they must make peace with some of their harshest critics for the new neighborhood plan to succeed. “There is a lack of trust with this agency, but we have to find a way to work together,” is what ACS Assistant Commissioner Anne Williams-Isom recently told a group in the basement of Cornerstone Baptist Church. “Everyone has to be part of the crusade of keeping children safe.”

ACS is looking to churches to provide that link between bureaucracy and neighborhood, and to smooth over the history of mutual distrust, which is why Williams-Isom, ACS Deputy Commissioner William Bell and other agency officials were at that Bedford-Stuyvesant church. Under the neighborhood plan, the city has some serious expectations of religious institutions. It wants clergy to provide informal counseling, and to be literally sitting at the table when ACS talks with a family about how to get children back home.

And, to be sure, the department wants churches to help recruit foster parents and volunteer babysitters. “It offers a pool of possible foster homes–congregations can be very large,” says William Henry, training director for Lakeside Family Services. “These are people who already have a sense of helping those around them.”

The project, called One Church, One Child, was modeled on a program in Chicago of the same name. But a more direct inspiration is right here in Bed-Stuy. During the 1980s foster home shortage, black families were in particularly short supply. The city turned to a day care center run out of the basement of Free Will Church of God and Christ. The result was Miracle Makers, a new neighborhood-based agency that could recruit hundreds of new parents by forging connections that white-run agencies downtown could not.

Child welfare officials are hoping that the miracle that got the city through one foster care crunch will now get it through another. Churches routinely accomplish something government isn’t wired to do: they forge human connections that shape and sustain a community. For the new plan to work, churches will have to get as involved in protecting children as they already have in feeding the hungry. In a sense, it’s a move back to child welfare’s roots as a religious charity.

But the social contract is different today. As with soup kitchens and food pantries, the relationship between state and church is forged on an uneasy understanding: that it is appropriate to ask the faithful to do something for God that neither government nor the private sector will do for the common good. It’s up to churches to absolve the sins of the powerful–and to answer their prayers in times of need.

The church leaders themselves are able to live with these contradictions because they, like Julia Boyd, believe that black churches need to stand by black children. “They’re children of color–we need to take care of our own,” says Eddie Lacewell, vice-president of Miracle Makers. His agency has done the seemingly impossible: it has turned race from something that divides a black neighborhood from the child welfare system to a force that unites Bed-Stuy residents around protecting their children.

Deputy Commissioner Bell got his start at Miracle Makers, and he knows that churches, and black churches in particular, will be a powerful ally. Government, he told the Bed-Stuy church leaders, cannot do the job of protecting children on its own.

“Those who you love, you chasten,” exhorted Bell. “We need to stop conducting business as usual and assume collective responsibility for our children.”

And then, as he did many times during his talk, Bell brought Christ to his aid. “I was hungry and you did not feed me…I was a stranger and you did not welcome me…as much as you withhold from the least of these, you withhold from me,” he murmured in hushed reverence. “We are confronted with a crisis when we cannot protect our children. It is also a crisis in the ability of our community to provide.”

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No longer can foster parents limit their responsibilities to their own homes–they, too, are now part of the neighborhood support structure for families in the system. They’re supposed to put their own complex emotions aside and act as mentors for birth parents, sitting in on child-parent visits instead of taking a long walk around the block. Birth and foster parents are asked to get to know one another, as partners whose common goal is the children’s well-being. Ideally, they’re even supposed to set up meetings at home, rather than the neutral ground of the local office.

If it works, the initiative ACS calls “Family to Family” will be a momentous leap, helping transform foster care from a punitive institution into a nurturing one. It could also be the toughest change of all. You don’t have to go to Miami to find adversarial relationships between birth and foster parents. Agitated biological parents frequently blame foster parents for holding their children hostage; hearing your own kids call someone else “mommy” can be devastating. For their part, foster parents understandably blame birth parents for the children’s suffering.

Too many caseworkers reinforce the belief that troubled birth mothers are unredeemable, say child welfare experts. “The system seems to thrive on keeping foster and birth parents at odds with each other,” contends John Courtney, research associate for the Center for the Study of Family Policy at Hunter College and a former executive of Little Flower Children’s Services. “The image of the drug-abusing parent is perpetuated. And foster parents buy into that, unfortunately.” Kids, of course, are caught in the middle.

Some foster parents wonder why ACS took so long to bring foster and birth parents together. Surreptitiously, they’ve been trying to connect all along. ACORN’s Veronica Jacobs started an organization called Within Reach to bring foster and birth parents together. Julia Boyd recalls defying her caseworker, who strictly forbid her from talking to her foster children’s parents. “I have a relationship with all my mothers–I talk to them, tell them the real deal: ‘I want you to straighten them out,'” she says. “I have a beautiful relationship with them; they visit me, and they call me.”

Those ties endure even after the children have left ACS’s sights. On a recent afternoon, 4-year-old Smooch scampers around Boyd’s Crown Heights apartment, playing with Boyd’s adopted daughter Audrey. Smooch used to be one of Boyd’s foster children; now that he’s back home, his mother frequently leaves him with Boyd when she needs a break on weekends. “I never desert a child,” declares Boyd.

She wakes up at six every morning, because she must spend an hour getting Audrey, who is mentally retarded, washed (she wets her bed), fed, dressed and out the door for her school bus.

Why has Boyd put in all this effort, for so little? “I’m an advocate, a fighter,” she says almost automatically. But there are humbler reasons, too. “All day we fuss, we argue–then as soon as they’re away for an hour, I’m actually lonely. If I send them to stay with my daughter for a night, I’m afraid all night. They’re my inspiration–they’re my joy.”