Born Clara McBride on April 1, 1905, in Elizabeth City, NC; died December 18, 1992, in New York, NY, of complications following a stroke; married Thomas Hale; children: Lorraine, Nathan, Kenneth. She worked cleaning Loew’s movie theaters, in the 1930s; began babysitting children in her home, in the 1930s; became a foster parent, in the 1940s; raised forty foster children, 1940s-1968; first took care of a drug-addicted baby, 1969; began caring for drug-addicted babies full-time; moved her baby care operation into a new building that was named Hale House, 1975; started caring for babies infected with AIDS virus, 1980s.
After deciding that her outside work commitments were causing her children to be alone too much, Hale began taking care of other people’s children during the day at her own home. Soon it became obvious that she had found her calling. “The parents paid me,” she told Parade in 1984. “I didn’t make a whole lot, but I wasn’t starving. And the kids must’ve liked it because once they got there, they didn’t want to go home.” Before long, Hale’s fledgling daycare operation became a full-time job, with kids staying with her during the week and parents seeing the children on weekends.
In the 1940s Hale went beyond daycare by securing a license as a foster parent. She began taking in children who were awaiting placement with adoptive parents, earning two dollars a week per child. For over a quarter century, her five-room apartment in Harlem was a sanctuary to seven or eight foster children at a time. All of the 40 foster children she helped raise ended up going to college.
Hale retired from foster parenting in 1968 when she was in her early sixties, but it turned out to be a short-lived respite. Her true calling was sparked in 1969 when her daughter Lorraine happened to pass by a young woman with a baby in her arms who was falling asleep in a park in Harlem. Hale’s daughter thought that her mother might be able to help the woman, so she gave the woman her mother’s address. “My mother has always been committed to the belief that there is a little bit of God in every person,” Lorraine Hale was quoted as saying in Newsday in 1985. “She feels it is her responsibility to respect and honor everyone. I knew she wouldn’t turn that baby away,” she added.
“When I saw this woman at my door, I was sure that some mistake had been made,” Hale told People in 1984. “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,” she continued. Hale took the reins from there, nurturing the baby through its withdrawal, then giving it back to the returning mother without requesting any fee. Soon the word got out on the street about Hale’s generosity. “Before I knew it, every pregnant addict in Harlem knew about the crazy lady who would give her baby a home,” she told Newsday.
Six months after her first encounter with a drug-addicted baby, Hale had 22 such babies filling her apartment. Money for tending the infants was provided by her daughter, who had a doctoral degree in child development, and her two sons, who all worked overtime or two jobs to help come up with the extra funds. After Hale’s efforts came into the public eye, campaigns for financial support were waged. In the 1970s, Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton helped secure funding for Hale’s work by New York City.
Sutton later initiated efforts to find a new building to better meet the needs of the growing operation. A federal grant was secured to help rebuild a five-story brownstone in central Harlem in 1975, which was then christened Hale House. Children were referred to the establishment by New York City agencies, the police department, and word of mouth. Eventually, Hale’s operation included childcare workers, a house parent, a teacher, a social worker, and a cook. Clara Hale trained a number of child-care workers, in addition to sleep-in aides who relieved her on the job from time to time. Her daughter assumed control of the administrative operation, thus freeing Hale to care for the children full-time.
The strategy for taking care of these tragic infants boiled down to one word for Hale: love. As Herschel Johnson wrote in Ebony in 1986, “The cure she employs is not based on miracle medicines. Instead, the healing power of love and positive reinforcement is emphasized.” Typically, Hale would receive congenitally addicted babies who were about ten days old and work with them for two or three weeks to overcome their withdrawal. Newcomers typically stayed with Clara Hale herself in her own bedroom. By about five to six weeks, the babies were more or less normal. Mothers could not take their babies back again until they had completed a drug-treatment program, or until it was determined that they were ready to be good parents to their children. Children stayed at Hale House for an average of eighteen months, at which point they were placed in foster homes or returned to their families. During their stay, the mothers were required to attend a drug rehabilitation program and visit their children every week.
By 1985 Hale House was receiving annual funds of $190,000 funneled through the New York City Department of Social Services of Children, with another $30,000 being brought in by private donations. Celebrity supporters over the years have included Tony Bennett, Lena Home, and John Lennon, whose John Lennon Spirit Foundation directed by his widow, Yoko Ono, continued sending Mother Hale $20,000 a year after Lennon’s murder in 1980. Over the years, Hale herself engaged in a lot of fundraising for her operation.
From Expansion to Presidential Honoree
Eventually, Hale House was expanded to include a complex of 30 apartments for mothers who were receiving treatment for drug rehabilitation. Controversy sometimes swirled over Hale House’s unorthodox policies, which failed to meet the usual requirement that young children be raised in private homes instead of her group-care setting. Court approval for returning infants to parents was not required by Hale House, either. Unwavering public support enabled Hale to bypass the usual restrictions, and she continued to get waivers from state regulations throughout the mayoral administrations of Abe Beame and Ed Koch in the 1970s and 1980s.
As the crack epidemic in New York City eased up, Mayor Dinkins ordered the administration to stop referring kids to Hale House in 1989, feeling that the city could better handle finding foster care. Despite this shift in policy, babies continued to arrive at Hale House, both drug-addicted ones and those infected with the HIV virus. A more aggressive fund-raising policy was put into effect to help make up for the loss of government financing. By 1991, Hale House’s budget was $3.5 million. In the years that followed, its programs were expanded to encompass housing and educating mothers after detoxification, apprentice training for youths who began having problems, and a home for mothers of infants infected with the AIDS virus.
During his presidential administration, Ronald Reagan was a big fan of Mother Hale. He invited her to attend his State of the Union Address in 1985, at which occasion he called Hale “a true American hero,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Hale received a standing ovation at the occasion but remained her usual humble self. She continued wielding her magic with her kids well into her eighties and never stopped taking great pride in her tiny charges. “I think they’re all success stories,” she said of her Hale House babies in the Los Angeles Times “We’ve never heard of any of our children being in jail, and I think that’s a success.”