At a bar in Brooklyn, would-be foster parents ponder the ethics of taking in migrant children

A group of children are taken to the Cayuga Center in East Harlem. Hundreds of migrant children separated from their parents by federal immigration officials are being cared for in the facility.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

For Alba Ponce de Leon, a 36-year-old voice actor from the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, the path to parenthood started with an email and stalled out over a pint.

Ponce de Leon was one of more than a dozen potential foster mothers who rushed from work to Brooklyn’s hip 61 Local bar on Monday to meet with representatives of the Cayuga Center in Harlem, one of the facilities housing immigrant children separated from their parents. Like the others, she had hoped to foster one of the thousands of children who were taken from their parents at the border, flooding the federally funded nonprofit in recent weeks.

“I almost feel like I accidentally found out about it," she mused over a half-empty cider at the end of the bar. “The whole situation is terrible, it just gets worse and worse and worse and I just want something good to happen. That’s why I came. Maybe if I come here it feels like there’s something I can do."

Alba Ponce de Leon, a potential foster mother, attended the meeting at Brooklyn's 61 Local bar. Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Monday’s event was to be among the first in a series of orientations for foster hopefuls, who have responded in overwhelming numbers to requests for Spanish speakers with space in their New York City apartments and room in their hearts. Rather than a church or a community center, organizers from the Park Slope Parents Network reserved the Pinterest-perfect private event space at a Cobble Hill gastropub better known for its comedy open mics and kombucha on tap.

Then, abruptly, they canceled.

Neither Cayuga Centers nor the organizers of Monday’s event responded to multiple calls and emails about why the orientation was called off. A bartender at 61 Local said that the pub had received threats of a protest, though an email circulated by the event organizer on a local parents’ listserv noted that the cancellation was “due [to] the onslaught by the media” and “an outpouring of people contacting them to foster, donate, etc.” A woman who answered the extension for aspiring foster parents at Cayuga Centers on Wednesday morning said that the charity was not taking any calls from the press, though as of Tuesday they were still seeking families and had future orientations planned for mid-July.

“The optics of it are bad,” explained Dr. Thomas Crea, a foster care expert who studies migrant children and used to run similar events in furniture stores. “But if you need parents, you gotta go out to where parents are.”

Enter proselytes in acetate eyeglasses and Rosie Pope workwear, drawn by listservs like Brooklynitos and Fort Greene Kids and BoCoCa Moms (BoCoCa being an acronym for three adjacent Brooklyn neighborhoods). Almost all of those who showed up on Monday were women of color -- and also women of means, late-30s and early-40s professionals with the space, income, and the deep well of resources experts say are required to successfully care for young asylum seekers.

“Especially for tender age kids, if you’re a middle-class foster parent and both parents are working, it’s just not feasible,” Crea said. Unlike domestic foster care, which is run by the state, fostering migrant children requires a license from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, whose requirements are numerous and exacting.

“It really requires parents who have some resources and who have flexibility,” Crea said. “You have to have somebody who’s basically a full-time caregiver in order to get all these services you need.”

Child welfare experts say there is an acute need for foster parents to help care for many of the more than 2,000 migrant children still waiting to reunite with their parents, and that it is likely to remain urgent despite an injunction by a California court Tuesday night mandating that families be reunited within 30 days.

But in the wake of the cancellation at 61 Local, the listservs’ logistical queries about how to foster migrant children have been overtaken by debates about whether it is ethical to foster them at all.

61 Local bar in Brooklyn hosted a meeting on Monday to meet with representatives of the Cayuga Center in Harlem, one of the facilities housing immigrant children separated from t
61 Local bar in Brooklyn hosted a meeting on Monday to meet with representatives of the Cayuga Center in Harlem, one of the facilities housing immigrant children separated from their parents. Sonja Sharp / For The Times

"Tons of parents that I know like me are really concerned and upset by the situation, and a lot of times well-meaning people want to do something that has a direct impact,” said Ileana Mendez-Penate, a social worker and mother from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn who wrote an impassioned plea on the popular Park Slope Parents Network listserv urging others not to foster. “I think this kind of fantasy develops that we’re going to save a child and transform a really torturous situation in a new story. To actually address a situation, we need to force HHS and DHS [Health and Human Services and Homeland Security] to change their administrative policy.”

Eve Stotland, director of the Legal Services Center at The Door, another children’s nonprofit, said she both understood those concerns and empathized with locals who were desperate to help anyway.

“I think that the Trump administration has put well-meaning local individuals in a very difficult situation,” Stotland said. “They have committed atrocities to families and now they’re offering people an opportunity to help, mid-atrocity.”

Unlike Ponce de Leon, the Greenpoint voice actor, lawyer Susan Taing had long imagined herself as a foster mother. A refugee from Cambodia’s infamous killing fields, she has toddler twins and the first hint of a baby bump, as well as basic Spanish and a burning desire to help others in need.

“They're children, and I speak children,” she said. “When this came up, I thought, ‘How can I not do anything?’”

Likewise, a woman who gave her surname as Martinez grew up with a grandmother who fostered, and always believed she would do it herself. The 41-year-old asked to withhold her first name as her family continues to pursue fostering through Cayuga.

“I honestly also thought it’d be great for my daughter,” she said of her trilingual 18-month-old. “It would be helpful to live with someone else who’s not from her family or even her country.”

All three women said they had left their information with the charity, and that they were hopeful they might still get the call. Yet doubts lingered too.

“I’m a native Spanish speaker, but a lot of these kids don’t even speak Spanish,” said Ponce de Leon. “When I was on the way here, I was thinking — there’s YouTube for everything, maybe I can teach myself to say some things in Nahuatl, in Quechua,” she added with a hopeful smile. “I don’t know, this whole thing is so messed up."

Sharp is a special correspondent.