In the 36 years since Pat Warner started her career as a foster mother, a lot has changed. Drug babies, AIDS babies, abandoned babies were all rarities in the '50s. One constant has remained, though: the satisfaction Warner gets from giving foster children the love they need for a good start.
The job is emotionally draining and the pay is bad, but the rewards are great, she said. "They need loving, caring, nurturing, plain old TLC. Some babies are dumped in trash cans or left here and there and I know I've given mine a good start," said Warner, 74, a Manhattan Beach resident. "It's a good feeling, especially when you see them grown up."
Warner was recently honored with the "Service to Mankind Award" from the Sertoma Club of Torrance for her work "in caring for the less fortunate infants of our society," said the club's Robert Murray. "She knows that love is the vital ingredient in the first months of a human life. What better contribution to the growth and well-being of America could an individual make?"
Warner said she can't remember a time when there wasn't a baby in her house. "I've always been with children. I got myself through high school baby-sitting, then I had six of my own," including adopting one of her foster children in 1965.
She became a foster mother out of a need to "do something more productive than sit at home and go to women's club meetings," she said. "Everyone said I'd be sorry and tried to talk me out of it because it'd be so emotionally draining. But I didn't listen."
Instead, she signed on with Holy Family Services--a private, nonprofit counseling and adoption agency in Los Angeles--and began taking babies into her house in 1959. At the time, most were white and born to mothers who lived near the agency in a home for unwed mothers, Warner said. For the past 15 years, "we've had mostly minority babies," she said.
"If there's a white, blond, blue-eyed baby, they go the fastest. They're at a premium. The minority babies aren't," Warner said.
She has also seen more babies born to mothers with drug problems or AIDS; her current charge--a 3-month-old--was born to a mother on drugs and then abandoned, she said. "But he's fine, no problems. I've been real lucky," Warner said. "I've never turned down a baby and I've never really had any with difficult problems."
She has cried a lot, though, when she meets adoptive parents she worries they "aren't prepared," she said.
"What I think is right or wrong doesn't matter, though," she said, since she leaves those decisions to the experts. "I cry a lot and then go about my business until the next one."
As of today, Warner has cared for 189 babies from all over Southern California; most stay about three months, some only overnight, others are with her--on and off--for years.
She keeps in contact with about half a dozen of her former wards, she said. One, now a Compton police officer, invited Warner to his wedding and introduced her as his mother for five months, she said.
Warner is an unusual foster parent, said Jane Jackson, administrative manager for Holy Family, now one of the largest adoption agencies in Southern California. "It's rare to find someone who stays with it for that length of time. It's usually quite an emotional drain. But (Warner) is wonderful. She takes babies no matter what."
Jackson said she has no idea what keeps Warner going. And the question is difficult for Warner to answer herself. "It's just there, that's all," Warner said. "I came from a broken family so I don't think it came from my parents." And the money doesn't motivate her. Paid a fee of $345 per child per month, she said: "If you do it for the money, you don't do it."
Warner credits her husband George, retired from the construction business, and her children for giving her the support and help she needs to keep going. "If they hadn't helped, I couldn't have done it," she said.
And, of course, there is another reason. "Children are my life," she said. "Maybe that's what it is."