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Harlem charity adapts as drug epidemic wanes

The toddler-sized beds are empty now at Hale House, the charity launched when cracked-addicted moms routinely abandoned their newborns in Harlem.
Hale House
A bronze statue of "Mother" Clara Hale still looms large in front of Hale House in Harlem, New York.Bebeto Matthews / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The toddler-sized beds are empty now at Hale House, the charity launched when crack-addicted moms routinely abandoned their newborns in Harlem.

Founded by "Mother" Clara Hale in 1969 to house babies with few options, Hale House drew a generation of celebrities and politicians who posed for photos dandling children on their knees.

But like the surrounding blocks where drug dealers have given way to carpenters renovating elegant townhouses, Hale House has reinvented itself.

No longer a last refuge for abandoned children, the nonprofit runs a day-care center licensed for 38 children and a transitional housing program for homeless families.

Randolph McLaughlin, a civil-rights lawyer who serves as Hale House's executive director, said the organization's core mission has not changed.

"I view what we're doing here in Harlem as carrying on the legacy of a great woman, Mother Hale, and ensuring that that legacy continues to be vibrant," he said.

Loyal donors
McLaughlin was brought in to provide legal help in 2001 when the group's president, Clara Hale's daughter Lorraine, was accused of embezzlement. A year later, Lorraine Hale and her husband pleaded guilty to stealing thousands of dollars from the organization.

Zachary Carter, chairman of Hale House's board, acknowledged that the scandal still makes fundraising a challenge.

"It's a tough albatross to overcome, but there are loyal donors," Carter said.

Some of those donors will gather Thursday for a benefit hosted by Bon Appetit magazine and catered by celebrity chefs Charlie Trotter and Pichet Ong.

Clara Hale died in 1992, but she still looms large at Hale House. A bronze statue of her with a child adorns the front of the building.

There is a trophy room filled with honorary degrees, letters from famous supporters and photos of President Reagan in 1985 when he celebrated Hale as an American heroine in his State of the Union speech.

Also in the trophy room is Hale's rocking chair, draped in her crocheted shawl. McLaughlin said he sometimes sits in the chair to feel her presence.

"When Mother Hale started Hale House back in 1969, the conditions on the ground in Harlem were very different from the conditions we find today," he said. "Drugs were an epidemic problem. ... Mothers were literally birthing babies and leaving them in the hospital."

With no training in social work or early childhood education, Hale opened her home to babies whose mothers couldn't care for them because of heroin or cocaine or, later, AIDS.

'Saint-like quality'
State Sen. Bill Perkins, whose district includes Hale House, said Hale had a "magical or sort of saint-like quality" that led even addicted mothers to trust her with their children.

When it was a group home, Hale House had room for 13 children. The last of those left a few months ago. Some remain in Hale House's legal custody but are in pre-adoptive homes.

There are still families in distress, but Harlem today has been gentrified to the point that it scarcely resembles the mean streets of the 1970s or '80s.

"There are no crack babies laying around on the streets of Harlem," McLaughlin said. "You see more Euro-cafes and Internet cafes. There's a brownstone across the street selling for $4.5 million."

Hale House strives to match its services to the mixed demographics of the neighborhood, he said.

Transitional housing
At the day care center, known as the Mother Hale Learning Center, middle-class families pay for preschool while low-income families are subsidized by government vouchers.

Catherine Stewart-Lindley said her 4-year-old daughter, Allegra, loves her teachers and everyone connected to the program. "It's a very desirable place to be," Stewart-Lindley said.

The Supportive Transitional Housing Program has room for 19 single-parent families who are coming out of homeless shelters and aiming for self-sufficiency.

The families are scattered among rent-paying tenants in two buildings near Columbia University. They receive help from social workers whose goal is to move them into permanent housing within a year.

India Philips, a young mother of a 15-month-old who lives in one of the transitional apartments, said it's clean and beautiful — a vast improvement over the dormlike shelter in Brooklyn she came from.

"I'd never think it was a shelter," Philips said.