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Making Life Meaningful : Mary and Colvin Phillips Find Joy by Opening Home to 152 Needy Children

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since 1978, Mary Phillips and her husband have taken care of 152 children in San Diego.

Most of the children, ranging from newborns to teen-agers, were physically and sexually abused, or drug-dependent. They were foster children that the couple cared for until permanent homes were found for them.

“It has been a “lifelong dream,” said Phillips. “I felt a need to do this. My mother always told me that, if you can’t help someone, then life is meaningless. I was 18 before I found out I was orphaned. There were always other people living at our house.”

Phillips grew up in San Antonio, near an orphanage.

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“When I was in kindergarten and elementary school, I would draw pictures of houses, and there would be a child in each window,” she said. “The houses had a large yard with fences around them. My mother saved all the pictures.”

The Phillipses live in a two-story yellow house in San Carlos. There is a huge back yard surrounded by a wood fence. Recently, six bubbly girls played on a small swing set in a large sandbox in the yard.

Phillips, 67, said it took a while to convince her 63-year-old husband to let her accept foster children into their home 12 years ago. They also have two adult daughters and a son of their own.

“There was an emptiness in my life, and I filled that void by helping others. I want to help the ones that others don’t want to help. I used to say that, if there were any children that nobody wanted, I wanted them.”

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“It isn’t easy. You have to love children, and have tolerance because most of (these) children have problems,” she said. “You have to raise your tolerance level and lower your expectations. I deal with each child as an individual, and don’t group them. You have to have a lot of patience.”

In California, there are more than 65,000 children who need foster care, and more than half are African-American, Latino or American Indian. The state Department of Social Services has begun a two-year campaign to encourage minority families to adopt or temporarily care for these children, said Jim Brown, chief of adoption for the Department of Social Services in Sacramento.

“There are just so many kids, the number outstrips the available families in California. But, we’re doing something about it. We have increased our funding by 25%. Many of the children don’t find permanent families. When they turn 18, they’re on their own. It’s a miserable way for a person to begin an independent life.”

Brown said the state agency began a partnership with county and private adoption agencies statewide in November, 1988, to find homes for minority children. A disproportional number of foster children are African-American, he said.

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The African-American population in California is about 9%, but 38% of the state’s foster children are African-American. There are not enough African-American families to go around.

“It’s important for kids to be placed with the same ethnic group, but if a match can’t be made, they’re put in a good, loving home,” Brown said.

Over the years, the Phillipses have had children of all races living in their home. Some stayed for one day, others as long as seven years. The couple now have six foster children. Recently, they decided to adopt Claressa, who is almost 3. The child has lived with the Phillipses since she was a newborn.

“We got her from the hospital when she was 17 days old,” Phillips said. “She has cerebral palsy and she’s drug dependent. She’s not the kind of kid who will do well in anyone’s home. That’s why we’re adopting her.”

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During a reflective moment, Phillips remembered how Claressa slept on her chest at night until she was 4 months old, because she had to give the child phenobarbital every six hours to calm her so she could sleep.

“Doctors said that she wouldn’t live, and she’ll be 3 in June,” Phillips said. “They said she’ll never walk and she’s walking. They said she’d never talk, but she’s learning. She goes to speech therapy once a week. She only has about a 15-word vocabulary.”

Brown, from the state Department of Social Services, said an increasing number of foster children are born with drug additions.

“It has become a major issue today,” he said. “Crack is diabolical and horrible. It takes responsible people and turns them into irresponsible parents who leave their children in a crib for two or three days while they seek the drug. It causes children to be permanently impaired physically and mentally. It puts a burden on society.”

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During the past year, California taxpayers have paid $1.2 billion to maintain foster and child welfare programs, excluding medical and educational programs, Brown said.

The San Diego County Department of Social Services has begun a three-year “Drug and Alcohol Infant Pilot Project” to place children who test positive for drugs with foster families, said Bruce Abel, supervisor of foster home development.

Some of the referrals are reported to the Child Abuse Hotline from hospital personnel who test infants who are victims of child abuse.

Out of the 1,000 drug abuse cases reported to the Child Abuse Hotline each year in San Diego County, about 43% become wards of Juvenile Court, and about 310 are placed in foster homes, Abel said.

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In the Phillips home, there are six foster girls. Each child, except 3-year-old Cordelia, was born drug-dependent. LaTasha, 8, Qwenice, 7, Danitra, 5, and Charity, 3, receive counseling and occupational therapy in arts and crafts designed to correct physical problems.

The Phillipses teach the children as they would any other children. After dinner, the girls are assigned chores. They have to make sure their clothes are hung up, their shoes are in the closet, and their rooms are clean.

“I couldn’t have done it without my husband,” Phillips said. Sometimes there’s an assembly line going, I bathe the children and my husband dresses them,” she said.

The girls affectionately refer to the Phillipses as Grammie and Papa. They are both retired. Colvin Phillips worked as an aircraft examiner for North Island Naval Air Station for 27 years. Mary Phillips worked as an accountant for 20 years.

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But, it is not all work for the Phillipses. At least three times a year, they take the children on vacations. In the summer, they go camping, and in the winter they go to the mountains and play in the snow, and sometimes “we just get in the camper and drive,” Mary Phillips said. And, at least once or twice a year, the Phillipses take a vacation without the children.

In 1981, the Golden West Masonic Lodge in San Diego, gave Mary Phillips a Mother of the Year award.

“I’ll keep taking care of children until I feel I can’t do it anymore,” she said. “I’ll know when I’m ready to quit. My reward is to see the children improving. LaTasha has learned to dress herself, make her bed and wash dishes, and that’s an improvement. She came off the streets and didn’t know anything.”


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