LOS ANGELES, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- When you meet Barbara Harris, it's hard to figure out how old she is. Her youthful looks don't seem to match her eventful life story.
After a couple of decades of being a waitress at International House of Pancakes while raising her three sons, she spent seven years as a stay-at-home mom for her four new adopted children, all siblings whose mother was a drug addict. Then, in 1997, she founded one of America's most innovative and controversial charities, C.R.A.C.K. (Children Requiring A Caring Kommunity), which pays addicts $200 to use long-term contraception or get sterilized.
According to her Web site CashForBirthControl.com, 584 women (and eight men) have taken Harris up on her offer. Her clients have 1,102 of their children in the foster-care system. Another 231 of their babies have been stillborn or died shortly afterward. The women had also had 993 abortions.
Long-term birth control was the choice of 57 percent of the women, while the others picked tubal ligation. About half her clients have been white and another one third were black.
Harris is a large, cheerful woman of impressive energy. Her long, dark blonde hair and almost line-free face suggest she's in her 30s. But then she tells you that she has three grandchildren by her oldest son, who is 30. And her second son, a senior at Stanford, just got married. It turns out she is 48. Perhaps her secret is that she doesn't spend a lot of time fretting over her worries. Instead, she responds with direct, vigorous action.
Harris, who is often denounced as a "racist," is a white woman who lives with her African-American husband Smitty, a surgical technician, in a non-descript but pleasant section of Orange County, Calif., called Stanton. Mixed-race families are not a particularly big deal in this suburb near where Tiger Woods grew up.
I met with Harris at C.R.A.C.K.'s three-room suite in a low concrete office building in nearby Garden Grove. While most articles about Harris have concentrated on the ideological arguments that have pitted her organization against representatives of the ACLU and the NAACP, I was more interested in what motivated her.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. All over the place. I didn't know until recently that it was because my father was running from paying child support! I have four stepsisters and my father and mother had four of us.
Q. How many children do you have?
A. I have three birth sons (ages 30, 21, and 20) and two sons and two daughters who are adopted (ages 12 through 8).
Q. When did you decide to adopt?
A. In 1990, but I actually wasn't planning on adopting any children, I just wanted to get a little girl because I had all boys. So, I decided to be a foster parent because I thought I could have little girls and dress them up and fix their hair and play with them and give them back. My husband didn't want us to become foster parents. He said, "Barbara, there's no way you're going to be able to get a baby and give it back a year later." I honestly believed at the time that wasn't going to be a problem, because I thought that these aren't my own kids and I won't love them like my own kids.
The first baby that was placed with us was Destiny. She was 8 months old. I found out when we got her that she had four older sisters. She was the fifth baby born to the same drug addict. When Destiny was born, she tested positive for crack, PCP and heroin. That was actually the first time I ever realized that babies were born addicted to drugs. I had never even considered that pregnant women could be drug addicts and having babies. Destiny was 8 months old, so I didn't have to see her withdrawing from drugs.
That was something I didn't experience until four months later when her brother was born. We got a phone call from the social worker telling us that we had gotten another baby boy and the mother didn't want him. I called my husband at work and we decided to take him because the older four children were in four separate homes.
It wasn't until I picked Isaiah up from the hospital and saw how he suffered that it had the full impact on me. He was just miserable for months. He couldn't sleep, he couldn't keep food down, his eyes were like they'd pop out of his head. Noises scared him, lights scared him. It was nothing like the experience I had bringing my birth children home.
I started to get very angry at the fact that the mother was allowed to do this. Not once, twice but six times. That's when I got angry, because I talked to other foster parents and found out that there were lots of addicted women out there having babies every year.
Some kids will never be normal. We hear stories in the office about kids dying, kids having brain damage. But my kids are four of the more fortunate ones and they don't seem to have problems. They are more emotional than my birth kids are, but they are all doing good in school and are all very well behaved.
Q. Your husband Smitty sounds like quite a guy.
A. Every time we'd get a phone call from the social worker saying she had another baby -- because that happened twice more, with Taylor and Brandon -- he'd get frustrated. He'd say, "Barbara, we just can't taking this lady's kids." We'd already had all of our own kids, and they were grown and in college, and now we have four more kids in elementary school. But, what can you do? Obviously, he's very patient to put up with me, because most husbands wouldn't have done it. But I wanted to do it, and he did it for me. He doesn't regret it now.
Q. What did your sons think?
A. They loved it. They were very excited. Whenever I'd get the call from the social worker that she had another baby, they'd be in the cheering section in the background when I'd call Smitty at work. "One more, Daddy, just one more," they'd call out. He was outnumbered; he never stood a chance. Poor Smitty.
Q. Suddenly, you've gone from three children to seven children in three years. Where did you fit everybody?
A. I stopped waitressing right after Destiny. We used to have a condo, then we upgraded to a house, then we added on to the house. Everybody fits. We had a car and had to get a van and eventually a bigger van. Then my husband told me, "We're not buying a school bus."
Q. How did you get started as an activist?
A. I actually started by calling the police department and asking them if I could press charges against the drug addict for child endangerment and make a citizen's arrest. But they told me no, there was nothing that could be done. So, I started writing to all the politicians and getting back their standard letter that they send to everybody, no matter what they write about.
I started looking for California state legislators who would support a bill. I finally found an assemblyman in Cerritos, who told me he'd author the bill. So, we wrote it and it passed the Health and Safety Committee. The assemblyman had all the votes he needed for it to pass. But then the governor's right hand man stood up and shared publicly for the first time about the personal drug problems he had had, and by the time he was done, everybody in the room felt so sorry for drug addicts that the sponsor knew it wouldn't pass.
So, I called Prof. Robert A. Pugsley, a law professor at Southwestern U. that I had been working with, and asked him "What if we offered these drug addicts money to use birth control? Can we do that?" He called back a couple of weeks later and told me he'd talked to the district attorney's office. They said they couldn't see any reason we couldn't do it.
We had $400 that had been donated by an attorney who works at Children's Court, and we started hanging signs. When I got that first call, I was so excited. She was having her sixth baby and wanted a tubal ligation. Then the sister of a drug addict here in Orange County pleaded with me to offer her sister this option because she had five or six babies and the family was torn apart.
I had a press conference in my front yard. I had no clue how many people would be interested in what I was doing. There were news trucks up and down and around and people from New York! Everybody wanted to know about what we were doing. I guess it had never been done and it's not being done anywhere else. People have been coming from other countries to hear about this.
Q. What kind of reactions do you get from the families of addicts?
A. They're very grateful. We just got a call from this woman who lives at Travis Air Force Base whose niece was an addict. She said, "Please make her an offer." They'd considered doing it as a family, but they knew that if they made her an offer themselves, out of spite she won't do it. So, we offered the niece more money, $500. The family was willing to pay it.
Q. Why only eight men so far?
A. Men don't have many options (just vasectomies(, so they don't follow through. When they hear what they have to do, they go, "Ooh, I'm not doing that." And in most cases it's not drug-addicted men who are getting these women pregnant -- it's johns that they prostitute with all day long for $5 a person. One of the women who came through our program had 14 babies. She doesn't know who the fathers are, and that's usually the case. A lot of times they don't even know what race the kids are. How sad is that?
Q. Why were you the one who had the courage to try this?
A. To, me it's simple. There's no rational reason why a drug addict or alcoholic should get pregnant. Those who oppose us can't offer a reason; they just oppose us. And most who oppose us are not willing to adopt any of these kids. Unless you're willing to take the next baby home, your opinion means nothing to me.
They just accuse us, but nobody has a better solution. To me, this is just common sense, but a lot of people don't have common sense I've learned. They don't teach common sense in college.
But we really don't have that many opposing us. Overwhelming support is what we have from the public.