Pubdate: Mon, 13 Jan 2003
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2003 The New York Times Company
Author: Nia-Malika Henderson


Instead of having a childhood, Kelly Brown, 23, grew up with 
responsibility, worry and fear.

"I was the oldest," she said, "so the majority of the time when I was 
growing up, I had to look after the family."

Ms. Brown did not have much help in those days. She did not meet her 
natural father until she was 8, and has rarely seen him since then, because 
he lives in California. And the man her mother settled down with and 
eventually married? He pulled her mother away from her family and into a 
party lifestyle.

So from age 11 on, she found herself having to find a balance between 
mothering and middle school.

Instead of going to school every day, Ms. Brown, the oldest of five 
children, stayed home and cared for her infant sister. And on those days 
when she just wanted to get out of the house, Ms. Brown would wake up early 
and sneak out, leaving a brother to baby-sit.

"Every day was unpredictable," Ms. Brown said. "We could never tell if my 
mom was going to be home or if there would be food."

If she really needed her mother, she could find her partying with friends 
in Brooklyn's Marcy Houses. But mostly, she just took her mother's place, 
something her mother, Valerie, now regrets.

"I was a terrible mother," said Mrs. Brown, 44. "My drug problems meant 
that Kelly had to grow up fast."

But when the burdens became too much to bear, the Children's Aid Society, 
one of seven charities supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, 
was asked to step in to ease Ms. Brown's transition into foster care after 
Mrs. Brown's fourth child was born with traces of crack in his system. 
Today, although Ms. Brown is too old for foster care, she still finds open 
doors at Children's Aid.

As a young girl, when Ms. Brown would see her mother's crack pipes in the 
living room of her family's apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, she would 
toss them out the window. From that same window, 12 floors up, she saw 
neighbors buying and selling drugs or running for cover when guns went off.

"It seemed like people were being killed every day," Ms. Brown said.

Life inside the Brown apartment was also marred by confusion and 
uncertainty. Public assistance payments helped, but food, clothes and 
comfort were all in short supply.

Everyone in the family pretended that life was normal. All the while, Ms. 
Brown was the one good thing her siblings could cling to.

Ms. Brown's brother Terrell bagged groceries after elementary school, for 
tips, Ms. Brown said. She changed diapers and cooked and cleaned. They 
begged and borrowed from neighbors, and tried mightily to keep the family 

But the school absences started to mount, and teachers and neighbors 
noticed more and more that life in the Brown home was nothing like normal. 
In 1994, New York foster care officials took custody of the children, four 
of them at that time, ranging in age from 1 month to 15 years.

For Ms. Brown, life together with her siblings in their mother's home was 
over, and her foster care years had begun. Nothing shook her more, because 
struggling was one thing - it was what they all knew best - but separation 
was quite another.

"When I went into foster care I was suicidal," Ms. Brown said. "I didn't 
feel appreciated and I felt completely alone."

And then, to add one more stress to the fractured family, Ms. Brown's 
stepfather died in 1996 at age 43. Mrs. Brown sank deeper into addiction.

Sometimes all the siblings were in the same home, but often they were not. 
Sometimes the foster parents were supportive and attentive, but often they 
were not.

But across boroughs and new family formations, Ms. Brown stayed in touch 
with her mother, always hopeful that she would get better. "They could 
never send me away so far that I couldn't get back to Fort Greene," Ms. 
Brown said.

And just as Ms. Brown bridged the gap in her family, Children's Aid did the 
same for her.

When she had problems with one foster family, the agency advocated on her 
behalf and helped arrange a new placement. Later, while she was in high 
school, Children's Aid helped her get a summer office job. She graduated 
with a major in performing arts and went to Brooklyn College for two years, 
studying database management.

She now lives on her own in an apartment in the Bronx. But in August, after 
she lost her job as a security guard, Children's Aid came through again. 
Using Neediest Cases money, the agency gave her $1,500 toward rent and bills.

Ms. Brown has been out of work for the last five months, but is looking for 
an entry-level administrative position.

Meanwhile, her mother would like her to move back. Mrs. Brown regained 
custody of her other children last January, and they live in 
Bedford-Stuyvesant. After months of counseling, Mrs. Brown has been 
drug-free for about five years, and has another chance at family life, 
thanks, in part, to her oldest child.

"Kelly is my mentor," she said. "She has always been so strong and 
optimistic. I want to be her when I grow up."
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