There are a quarter of a million children now in foster care in the United States, in both families and institutions. That figure is down in recent years, not because the need is growing smaller, but because in 1980 many in the field adopted the policy of trying to keep families together as much as possible, notes Joyce Johnson at the Child Welfare League in Washington. There has also been a stepped-up effort to find permanent families for children who had to be placed, she adds. Still, there aren't enough foster parents to go around, and many are getting older and are not being replaced. The foster mothers featured below (all of whom got considerable help and support from their husbands) are involved in emergency foster care. They're willing to take in a child in the middle of the night, for short- or long-term care - and all have either adopted children themselves or have arranged for adoptions.
About 90 percent of all foster children are placed through agencies that recruit volunteers. The three outstanding foster-care providers profiled here work directly through Special Services for Children, part of New York City's Human Resources Administration. On any particular day in New York, there are 18,000 children in care, according to spokeswoman Julie Suess. There are about 12,000 foster families, which is not enough. The agency is attempting to recruit 500 more. Special Services for Children, an agency for ``last resort'' placement, placed 972 children in the past year, says Ms. Suess.
WHEN you think of the phrase ``foster home,'' it has a kind of bleak ring to it. And of course there's a tragic story behind every foster child.
But there is nothing bleak about staying with Nancy Williams, a woman with such a generous, inclusive sense of family that you feel immensely cheered the minute you walk in her door.
She sits you down in her neat, homey living room, where there are framed pictures of family on the end tables under all the oversized lamps, and where all the furniture is covered with plastic. Two beautiful three-year-old girls, who have met some three days before, are romping ecstatically about the room, as if they had known each other for ages.
``I usually put so much in my children,'' says Mrs. Williams, who has a sweet voice and shoulder-length gray hair. ``I don't treat them as little strangers, little boarders. They come right in as my children.''
The two little girls are calling themselves NeNe and TeTe, she explains, her arms around both of them, giving each a little pat or two on the tum as they're introduced. The girls are wearing lavender coveralls; Miss NeNe is a vigorous and self-assured young lady who has lived with Mrs. Williams for several months, while TeTe, her sidekick and shadow, is a recent arrival, and slender. ``I hope she can stay, because she's very delicate and undernourished,'' says Mrs. Williams. ``So was NeNe when she came, and look at how plump she is now....''
Mrs. Williams has been a foster mother for 28 years. At the moment, she is taking care of three other older girls besides NeNe and TeTe. She takes emergency and short-term cases, plus she has mothered a whole family of four foster children, all of whom are now grown and married, with good jobs. She has never had children of her own, ``but I tell you it's the greatest satisfaction, taking care of children who really needed it,'' she says.
Being a foster parent is a job for a diplomat.
``I work so hard to get them straightened out, to get at their sad feelings,'' Mrs. Williams says in her sweet voice. ``And no matter how much love you try to give them, they come into a strange home, and sometimes they've been through so much they can't trust anyone.''
Any mother is full of tales of her children's doings, but there are a lot more stories when you have so many children. Mrs. Williams tells of one little girl who wanted to attend her old school, but ``there was really no home for her to go back to,'' she says. ``I thought, `What can I do for this child? I must do something.'''
So she offered her $5 for every 100 percent she got in school and the little girl did so well that Mrs. Williams jokes about having to ``get a job to support her....''
`SHE didn't like anyone. She would not eat. She's a welfare child from a welfare hotel. You have to fight to get to the bathroom. You have to fight to get something to eat. She came here ready to fight! I had to convince her there's no fighting in this house. There's no fighting here.''
She goes into the kitchen for a minute, with NeNe and TeTe in close attendance. At age three, you can get an incredible amount of mileage, funwise, out of blowing your nose and giggling.
``Look what I have!'' says NeNe, appearing briefly in the doorway with a piece of Kleenex clutched in each hand, like triumphant flags.
``The emergency children usually come in the night,'' says Mrs. Williams, settling down again.
``Nene came in screaming; the case worker had to sneak out without saying goodbye. She was attached to her other foster mother....
``Sometimes I won't have any information unless a social worker is assigned to me. They don't tell the foster mother the story, and I don't need to know.''
Since the '60s and '70s, Mrs. Williams says, ``I have seen some changes in children. These babies came from drug-addicted families. Now NeNe - her mother's dead. She comes from a drug-addicted family.'' TeTe lived with her mother, until a few days ago: ``The policeman took her away from the house and she [the natural mother] cried and said, `Please don't take my children.'
``There are different kinds and forms of abuse. My two older girls - their mother said she neglected her girls but she did not abuse them. But neglect is a form of abuse.''
As she speaks, NeNe and TeTe are pretending to be dogs (crawling about the floor saying ``woof woof'' in unison), and experimenting with different ways to sit in a chair (feet in the air, for instance, or bottoms up). NeNe jumps into Mrs. Williams's lap and Mrs. Williams explains that the child has a bad habit of pulling her hair out.
``She's just so nervous,'' she says compassionately, pulling a little stocking cap over NeNe's head, which gives a Pierrot-like look to the vivacious little face.
``I'm going to have to wash it, and put some oil on, and brush, brush, brush,'' she says, cuddling and rocking her little girl. Refilling the `empty nest'
Monica Sylvester is an energetic, funny woman with four bright, successful grown children of her own (including a son at Harvard). She kind of specializes in families, and at the moment is caring for three children who have one mother but different fathers.
``I said, `Tell the judge I have a license for five and I can take them all,''' she explains.
She tells about taking the kids to a special Christmas party for foster children at Tavern on the Green, and to Lincoln Center. ``I give them a chance to see all the finer things.'' She also takes them to neighborhood meetings: ``I'm that kind of person; I'm involved. I take the children so they know - you can fight for your rights.''
Mrs. Sylvester has taken care of 37 children since she started foster care in 1978. Some of these were short term; ``one girl stayed one day,'' she recalls. This girl had left her former foster home because she had hit her foster mother. ``She was very demanding,'' says Mrs. Sylvester. ``She was here for one day and she wants me to press a special blouse. I said `I don't think that looks so good on you anyway; I'll get you another one,''' she recalls, laughing.
There were the children she and her husband had wanted to adopt, but the judge gave them instead to a grandmother, who had shown little previous interest in the kids - ``That hurt me, yes it did,'' she says.
Then there was Rebecca, then aged 14. ``Rebecca was a nice person if you let her go to her boyfriend. And I wasn't into that. So Rebecca up and ran away.'' On one memorable occasion, Rebecca threatened another foster child with a butcher knife, right in front of the social worker. ``Right then and there she called on the phone for another place for Rebecca,'' says Mrs. Sylvester, adding that she recently bumped into her, now grown up and married. ``She said, `This is my foster mother,' and began hugging and kissing me; I thought `Is this Rebecca?''' she says, laughing again.
Another challenge for foster parents: dealing with the regulations. For instance, you cannot take a foster child out of state, not even for a day trip. ``They're part of our family. What do we do, leave them at home?'' says Albert Sylvester.
For the Sylvesters, the three children they're caring for now are the answer to the ``empty nest syndrome.''
``In today's age, the children grow up and they're off to California or the moon somewhere,'' says Mr. Sylvester. ``The basic reason [his wife became a foster mother] was she needed a replacement.''
``All that's fine, true,'' says Mrs. Sylvester. ``One Saturday night he's at the American Legion, enjoying all the festivities, and I'm here watching TV. And there was a commercial on TV that said, `Would you like to be a foster mother?' And I thought, why not? I'm here looking at the TV. I'm just sitting here looking at the TV.'' `It's like planting flowers'
Rearing your own nine children might seem exhausting enough for one set of parents, but Ida McMichael, who has cared for 50 foster children in the last 20 years, says it's a matter of expertise.
``It's like planting flowers,'' she says, sitting by the fire in her pretty blue living room. ``If you plant a lot of flowers, and it goes well, you think you're pretty good.''
Right now she is taking care of five children who range in age from three months to 18 years old.
``The older kids are long term; I've had them since they were small. There's also one older child; he's out of care, though he's not quite out of my house,'' she says, laughing.
When she was a young woman living in the project, says Mrs. McMichael, ``A few children didn't get along with their parents. I just watched over them for no reason at all. After I bought my house and moved away, I think I got a little lonely for the extended family.
``I enjoyed my time there [in the project]; it's a springboard for young families getting started. But I had girls and I knew that my girls weren't going to get married out of the project. I didn't want any brides coming out of the project.''
I ask about the baby, and she goes upstairs and returns with the three-month-old, who is dressed in pink, and has straight black hair and creamy golden skin and is still kind of at the wobbly stage. ``No one sits on grandma's table but me,'' she says to the baby jokingly, setting her baby chair down on the coffeetable so we can both admire her.
The baby's father is at a halfway house; the mother is a mental patient. Mrs. McMichael takes the baby on regular visits to see the mother. ``The mother is so sad I can't stay in the same room with her. You see so much hurt....
``The sad part is when you see these kids who've been so abused. Then they allow these same kids to go back to the same place. That I don't understand. There are kids where the mother's boyfriend has abused them and they'll go back to that home. I wonder what is on that child's mind when they go back to that mother?
``Years ago there were kids where the mothers were sick. Then there were a few mothers who were mentally sick. A few unwed mothers that wouldn't take care of their babies - just lazy,'' she says disapprovingly. ``Now, everything is drugs. There are very few with a legitimate reason; everything is drugs or a very, very badly abused child.
``I had twin girls in the summer ... they were 15 months old. You couldn't reach for them or caress them. It took me about three weeks before I could pick them up. Oh, it would frighten them almost to death. They had been drifting from one home to another. They were two beautiful little girls, two beautiful little girls....
``They always think that to keep the kid joined with their biological parent is so healthy. I say where is their reasoning? A girl who's out on drugs, who doesn't even know her head from her foot - where is the bond?''
Another thing that bothers Mrs. McMichael is when people say ``the real mother'' and ``the real father'' for the biological parents. She wrote a short essay called ``Will the real mother please stand.''
In her essay, she says, ``I go through the things I do. You're up nights, packing lunches for school, taking them to Bible studies classes, or what have you, you have graduations.... So if you said, `Will the real mother please stand up,' who would stand? You or the biological mother? Who would stand?
``I do a lot of studying now; I attend every conference there is. There's more to it than the frilly baby. Because there are a lot of difficulties and a lot of aggravations. It isn't just peaches and cream to be a real foster parent; it has to be in here,'' she says, pointing to her heart.
She talks about an international foster parent conference she attended in England, and about a seminar there where some black women from the Caribbean said that they didn't want their kids in white foster homes, in spite of the fact that there weren't black foster homes for the kids to go to.
``I said, `I have one question, and if you can answer it you can keep talking, otherwise we're gonna close. What color is love?''