Feature Story

Century of Caring

Catholic Home Bureau looks to future as it celebrates 100th anniversary

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When the Catholic Home Bureau was founded 100 years ago it had a simple and straightforward goal--providing good Catholic homes for the countless numbers of orphaned or abandoned children, many of them Catholic, who would otherwise have been sent to foster and adoptive farm families in Western states.

"There was concern within the ranks of the Church about these children being shipped out West. Some of them went to very good homes, but not Catholic homes," said Sister Una McCormack, O.P., director of child care for the archdiocese and executive director of the Catholic Home Bureau (CHB) for 27 years.

"That was the Catholic Home Bureau's job, to find Catholic homes right here in the archdiocese," she said.

Since it was founded a century ago, much has changed at the Home Bureau as new services have been added or expanded--including family day care, group homes, maternity services, family shelters and Incarnation Children's Center for babies and children with AIDS.

Yet, the placing of children in homes with foster families has remained the heart of the CHB's mission over these 100 years--and the need is as strong as ever.

There were, for instance, more than 1,150 children in CHB-supervised foster homes last year. They're not orphans, unlike a century ago, but are mainly the neglected, abused children of dysfunctional or addicted parents.

As it marks its centennial year--which opened with a Mass Jan. 26 in St. John the Evangelist Church in Manhattan, and will culminate with a Mass celebrated by Cardinal O'Connor Oct. 24 in St. Patrick's Cathedral--the CHB is taking yet another step to improve and expand the services it offers to the children in its care.

Later this year, possibly by July 1, the CHB will merge with two other child care agencies in the archdiocese in a move aimed at offering a more comprehensive and integrated array of services.

The new agency combining the CHB, the Catholic Guardian Society and Cardinal McCloskey Services does not yet have a name, but it will serve an estimated 4,600 children and others each year on a budget of some $70 million.

Sister Una, who has declined an executive post with the new agency but will remain as archdiocesan director of child care, said, "Each has something to bring that the others don't have."

When the Catholic Home Bureau began in 1899, the fresh air of the prairies was seen as a healthier environment for children than the gritty New York streets, and many reputable child welfare agencies were sending their charges out West on so-called "orphan trains."

But, many of the children ended up as little more than indentured servants, and even in the best of homes the families taking the children were likely to be Protestant.

To remedy that, and to ensure that Catholic children were raised in their faith, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, under the leadership of Thomas Mulry, founded the Home Bureau on Jan. 26, 1899.

It was not the first Catholic child care agency. A number of others with varied missions already were operating under the auspices of religious congregations of women.

The Home Bureau, however, was the first Catholic agency in the United States devoted solely to placing children, and its establishment was hailed as a significant action by the Church to meet the needs of dependent children and relieve overcrowded orphanages.

Based in Manhattan and overseen by the St. Vincent de Paul Society for its first quarter century, the CHB was turned over to Catholic Charities in 1925 at the request of the society.

That same year, the CHB's Maternity Services Program was founded to assist pregnant unmarried women and others facing crisis pregnancies. The only CHB program which continues to receive no public funding, it served 592 women in 1998 with free counseling, medical and housing assistance and help in arranging adoptions. Each year some 2,000 calls are handled on the program's hotline.

Over the years the CHB continued to diversify and expand as needs arose.

At the end of World War II in 1946, for example, hundreds of children were in need of foster homes, and a large influx of Hispanic families from Puerto Rico was beginning. That prompted the opening of Cardinal McCloskey Home (now Children and Family Services) as a temporary place for children awaiting CHB foster homes. McCloskey later started its own placement service.

When Sister Una, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, joined the CHB for what was billed as a temporary assignment as executive director in 1976, she oversaw development of an Independent Living Program to help teens care for themselves after discharge from foster care.

The young children who make up the bulk of those in foster care are largely placed with families recruited and trained by the CHB. Many eventually return to their parents or other relatives, or they are adopted.

Teenagers in care are often placed in the agency's group homes.

"Some of these children have grown up in foster care," Sister Una said, adding that adoption is not a realistic option with older adolescents. "They're not interested in it," she explained. "Many have maintained contact with their families and just would not consider being adopted."

The CHB's first group home was opened in 1974 on Staten Island, followed by several others there and on Long Island. A district office opened later that year on Long Island and another one opened in the Bronx.

A family day care program, started in 1984 in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, now provides quality, low cost care to 275 children whose mothers work or are in school or job training programs.

St. James Residence for homeless pregnant women was opened in 1985 in lower Manhattan. A second home, Mitty Residence, opened a year later and a third, St. Elizabeth Seton Residence, opened in 1988. Both are in the Bronx serving homeless women with children.

The CHB established its first adult services program in 1995, when St. James Residence was renovated and converted into a residence for homeless single women at the request of New York City's Department of Homeless Services.

When the AIDS crisis hit in the mid-1980s, the CHB responded by opening Incarnation Children's Center in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan as a transitional residence for HIV-infected babies and young children.

At the same time, a specialized foster boarding home unit was started in the Bronx office to supervise specially recruited and trained foster parents for the children. An after-care program was started in 1992 to train and supervise parents, foster parents and relatives caring for the children after discharge from Incarnation.

The children's center is one of the two CHB programs that will not join the new agency after the merger. It will become a division of the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center in Manhattan under a new state policy requiring such programs to be formally linked with a hospital.

The other program that will not join is maternity services, which will be placed under direct supervision of Catholic Charities.

With its new partners and new name, the Catholic Home Bureau looks ahead to a future with an even wider range of services, including preventive services, emergency group care and residences for the developmentally disabled.

Said Sister Una, "We'll be entering the millennium as a stronger agency."

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