The screaming never stops. The little boy, 3 weeks old, terrified and frail, longs for something he cannot even begin to understand but has grown to depend on during his nine-month stay in the womb—heroin. There is nothing to be done outside a hospital to end his screaming, nothing that will keep his small hands from scratching angrily at his yellow skin or ease the twitching and shaking of his pitifully delicate arms and legs. “The only thing I do,” says Clara Hale as she cuddles the baby, “is feed him regular, change him and sing to him. Give him a good dose of mother love. He’s never had any, you see. Other than that, you wait. Just wait.”
Even as she speaks, 500 yards down this mean street in New York’s Harlem, on a plot littered with shattered bottles and rusting cans, two glassine heroin packets are exchanged between a young man in Army fatigues and a younger woman in a torn rabbit-fur jacket—and the cruel cycle of drug dependency continues.
Mother Hale is 78 and she has been working with drug-poisoned babies (who need two to three weeks of care to become detoxified) since 1969, when she took in the first innocent addict. Since then, some 487 babies have been cared for in Hale House, a five-story, publicly funded brownstone in the belly of America’s drug capital. Hale House is the only place of its kind in the city and probably the country, and in this humble, impeccably clean building, Clara Hale and her staff of seven (each of whom have at least two years of college) take care of newborns sent by city agencies, police precincts or hospital wards, or simply left there by desperate mothers.
The city allows Hale House (which has a yearly budget of only $170,000) to keep 15 children at one time. Most of them stay for 18 months, after which they are either placed in foster homes or returned to their families. Before that can happen, Hale House’s director, Clara’s daughter, Lorraine, who has a Ph.D. in child development, asks that each parent who wants the child back complete a drug-rehabilitation program (usually 18 months). “Once they’re out of rehab, they are given help finding an apartment, a job and coping with a drugless life,” says Dr. Hale. “Of the children we’ve cared for, only 11 have had to be placed in foster homes. The program works. As incredible as it may sound, it works.”
The birth of Mother Hale’s House, like the birth of many of those addicted babies, happened largely by accident. On her way to work one day 15 years ago, Lorraine Hale spotted a woman slumped on a bench, an infant girl tenuously held in her arms. “Lorraine gave the woman my name and address and told her to come see me,” Mother Hale says. “When I saw this woman at my door, I was sure that some mistake had been made. I thought my daughter didn’t even know any addicts. But since she insisted, I asked her to wait while I called. When I came back, only the baby was waiting.”
Clara Hale, then 63 and living in a five-room walk-up on 146th Street, had made a career caring for children most of her adult life. She took the addicted baby in, waited with it through withdrawal and, when the mother came back to visit, said there would be no charge. Word spread quickly through the neighborhood dope vines, and soon it seemed that every addict in Harlem knew about the old lady who took in a drug addict’s baby. Within two months, Mother Hale was caring for 22 infants, all of them drug-dependent. “Then the city found out about us and we were ordered to give the babies back to the parents,” she recalls, “even though it was the parents who had given us the babies in the first place. That’s how cities work, I guess.”
Clara, however, worked differently. She took her case to Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton. “He told us to look for a house that would suit our needs,” says Mother Hale. “And we did, quickly.”
“It was quite simple,” remembers Sutton, who is now chairman of Inner City Broadcasting. “There were a number of properties on the city rolls, most of them vacated. Add this to the fact that Mother Hale’s name was getting into the papers, and the matter of finding her a home proved to be no trouble at all.” After two years of renovation, the new house on 122nd Street was ready.
Three of the floors of Hale House are devoted to the children, with two large playrooms, a 24-hour kitchen and three bedrooms taking up the bulk of the space. The third floor belongs to Mother Hale and consists of a living room and a bedroom complete with remote control television and an antique rocking chair. It is in this room that Clara rocks her nights away, clutching screaming babies and slowly weaving her magical cold-turkey spell. “I bring a crib up here,” says the frail-looking surrogate mother. “I take the babies when they’re 10 days old and keep them in my bedroom until they’re 4 months old. I sing to them mostly. I don’t sing very well, and sometimes my singing makes them laugh, and they forget their pain for a few seconds.”
Clara Hale has loved being with children all her adult life. After graduating from high school in her native Philadelphia, she married Thomas Hale and moved to Brooklyn, where he started a waxing business. Soon after the birth of their second child, Clara Hale was a widow in need of a job, her husband a victim of cancer.
“The only work for blacks in the 1930s,” she says, “was domestic. So, I started taking care of children in my own house. I did it well enough that the kids never wanted to go home. Their parents then started paying me to care for them full-time. The children would live with me during the week and with their folks on weekends. Although it got to a point where there were seven or eight of them living with me fulltime, it was a very enjoyable life.” In all, she raised 40 children, including a boy whom she adopted. “I didn’t fill out any papers, just gave him my name,” she says. “He’s as much a son to me as the one who came out of my womb.” By the time the first addicted baby was left on her doorstep, she had decided to retire and “just kinda take it easy.”
Through the years since then, Clara has collected more than her share of plaques and awards, all of them displayed on the walls of the house. Contributions of both money and supplies are made frequently by people who learn of her good work. One notable outsider spent more than two years, off and on, trying to track her down because nobody in his circle knew her name. Finally, John Lennon found her and sent a check for $10,000. “He was a delight,” recalls Mother Hale. “He was amazed at the work we had done and were doing. He came with his wife and son and spent time with the children. His wife still sends money through the John Lennon Spirit Foundation.” The donation is $20,000 a year.
An astonishing number of the children taken in by Hale House come back, some with gifts, some just to say hello. “They don’t like people to know they were once here,” says Lorraine Hale. “It’s embarrassing, something they’d like to forget. Quite a few have even left New York. They eventually come back, though, quietly, to talk and be with Mother. They’re always calling, asking her for advice and help. They just don’t want people knowing about their background. It’s understandable. Nobody likes to be called an ex-junkie.”
Mother Hale knows that the world outside her windows—steel-barred, like others on the block, for safety—can seem a hopeless one. Her only concern in that world is the children. “Those babies don’t know anything except fear and pain,” she says. “It’s a hard enough life without coming into it as a second-class citizen. I try to change that. The children need somebody, and since I’ve lived my life, I’ve given myself to their happiness. If I can pass on the love I feel for them, make them know how good life can be, then I’ll truly have accomplished something.” Then she bundles a horde of small people into winter clothes and takes them to the park, and their children-noises, as they go, are joyful, giddy and carefree. That scene alone proves that Clara Hale has, indeed, truly accomplished something.