BABY strollers line the entrance. Off to the right, there is a room filled with enough vittles to feed an infant army for at least another week. At the end of the long corridor is the dining room, its beveled glass paneling reminiscent of Harlem in its heyday. Clara Hale, an equally elegant octagenarian, is finishing up her traditionally late lunch. Mrs. Hale, or Mother Hale as she's universally known here, is Grande Dame of Hale House, where over 500 infants born to drug-addicted mothers have been cared for since 1969.
No apologies are made for the doorbell that rings only sometimes, or for the smell of diapers in the nursery. Children are the priority in this extended family. ``Kids in here are not to be hollered at or beaten,'' says Mother Hale, ``and that's hard.''
Except for their smaller proportions and occasionally glassy-eyed gazes, children at Hale House are just as bouncy and eager for attention as children anywhere. A visitor's knees are hugged by one child after another during a lunchtime tour of the nursery for older children.
The special attention they receive becomes apparent almost immediately. Twelve tiny pairs of hands are clasped to give thanks before each meal. ``Nicole, be careful, it's hot. It's also not on your plate. Just wait a minute,'' says one of the child care workers from across the room.
There is a constant stream of conversation in the nursery. The children are cuddled and cajoled without stop. Everything is giggles and smiles, but it's not always that way.
Vernelle, for example, suffers from depression. Often she is despondent and withdrawn - a result of the narcotics she was born with, says staff members. She is 2-years-old, and quite a character on her good days. Today is one of them. Vernelle flits about the room basking in the adoring glances of the staff members. Her upturned face, framed by a frilly white pinafore collar against a red dress, recalls the silhouette on a poster hanging in the Hale House administative offices a few blocks away. The poster reads, ``Nothing is higher than life.''
It was one of life's lows, however, that brought Hale House into existence.
In 1969, Mother Hale's daughter Lorraine, who now holds a doctorate in child development, saw a young mother carrying a baby along a Harlem street. She was having trouble steadying herself and her child. Lorraine Hale stopped, talked to the woman, and concluded that addiction was making it impossible for her to care for the child any longer. She gave the young woman the address that she, her two brothers, and some 40 foster children had called home over the years. The next day, the infant was found on the doorstep.
Since that time, hundreds of mothers have been given a chance to start over, knowing that their children would have the special attention that each child deserves.
On average, infants stay at Hale House for 18 months, while their mothers are enrolled in drug rehabilitation programs - in line with Hale House requirements. Currently, the oldest child at Hale House is 3 years old.
``The mothers are so glad to have a second chance ... so happy to get their children back,'' says Mother Hale.
She explains that precautions are taken to ensure that no one who doesn't like children is employed at the house. ``And we don't want to give the children to a stranger at the end of 18 months, so the mothers must come once a week, so they can know their babies and their babies can know them.''
From time to time Mother Hale sees the children she has nurtured through withdrawal and rocked through the night. ``The mothers don't come back to live around here, but they do bring the kids by on a Saturday every now and then, so I can see how they've grown. It's like a stigma, having had your child at Hale House. They try to stay away from the old neighborhood. The fear is tremendous that `I'll go back to the old neighborhood and my life will fall apart again.'''
Lorraine Hale, who teaches a course on drug addiction at the College of New Rochelle, sees the effort at Hale House as a baby step in the long march towards drug-free living in the United States. For her, the problem is not so much the particular tool - i.e., drugs - being used self-destructively, but a pervasive attitude that leads to self-abuse and consequent child neglect and abuse.
``We see it everywhere,'' she says. `` The media plays a large role. We see ads on television telling people they don't have to experience this pain or that boredom, they can go there or take this to relieve the stress.''
Dr. Hale says it is time society stopped sending out mixed signals - that drug-taking and other activities are wrong but escapism is acceptable. ``You've never seen a pusher grabbing someone and telling them they must take drugs, have you? Ask the women who are on valium. Society is telling you that you don't have to suffer, when stress is a part of self-actualization. We are saying that you can be strung out under these conditions, but not those. Parents pop pills for everything known to man. Then they turn around and tell their kids `I don't want you doing drugs.' Tell me, is there any drug that's good for you?''
``I grew up in a household full of kids,'' says Dr. Hale. ``It never occurred to me to have my own. With so many children around, taking care of children was the issue. It didn't matter whose they were.''
At Hale House, taking care of children is still the priority.