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A life against the odds

February 28, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

"Please, don't hurt her.

Don't argue with them. You told me this would happen.

Leave her alone."

This is what 7-year-old Andrew Bridge thought as the police took him from his mentally ill mother on a Saturday afternoon on the streets of Los Angeles. Torn between the desire to protect his beloved mother and the need to be safe, he was pulled away from her and into a life that proved only marginally more bearable than his harrowing existence with her. Andy was taken to MacLaren Hall, public orphanage, "death house of childhoods," and then placed with an emotionally and often physically abusive foster family in the San Fernando Valley, where he stayed for 11 years. And yet, "Hope's Boy," published earlier this month and reaching No. 6 on the New York Times bestseller list, is not an abuse book. The man I sit talking with 38 years later radiates happiness, excitement, health. He carries a picture of his mom on his iPhone. Bridge looks boyish, though not at all like the boy sporting an odd, blank, half-smiling stare on the book's cover. When he's particularly thrilled with a topic, he literally hops up and down, even when seated. "This is not a book about me," he insists. "It is a book about my mother."

His mother, Hope, was beautiful and proud. "When my mother walked down the street," the book begins, "men noticed." Bridge was proud of her, in spite of the precarious life she led with him -- full of dangerous men and angry landlords and bloody, botched suicides. Bridge describes his mother in the courtroom scene in which he was officially removed from her care. "My mother was twenty-four years old, descended from a line of impoverished women, educated to the tenth grade, abandoned by a husband, and plagued with fear. Standing at the judging bar, she must have recalled courtroom encounters from her own childhood. Now, a woman among her betters, she could do nothing more than be still and be judged." Helping vulnerable people, especially children and women, would become his life's work.

Not only did Bridge survive, he triumphed over the odds. Despite the fact that only 2% of the nation's 500,000-plus children in foster care get a college degree, he got a scholarship to Wesleyan University and then graduated from Harvard Law School. He got a Fulbright, studied in Germany and after a stint representing children on behalf of a national civil rights organization, took the job as executive director of the Alliance for Children's Rights in Los Angeles, suing bureaucracies and institutions that fail to respect the rights of society's most vulnerable citizens.

Andrew Bridge saw his mother twice in the 10 years after he was taken from her. It is his firm belief that too many children are taken from their parents prematurely, that more resources and creativity should be applied to helping fragile families recover and better care for their children.

He thinks that foster care in this country has become a punitive solution for these vulnerable families. Social workers get more praise and bureaucracies more compensation for "saving" children from potential abuse and keeping them in state care than for keeping families together. These social workers are, of course, concerned that if they leave a child in a precarious situation and something happens, they will be to blame. And families, meanwhile, are so terrified of their children being taken away that they do not rely on social workers when in dangerous situations. Bridge thinks much more can be done to help keep these families intact.

"For all our talk about family values," he says, "we really only mean certain families." Bridge saw firsthand what happens to vulnerable women in this or any city. "I saw my mother raped, slapped, disrespected in every way, in spite of her amazing power as a beautiful, intelligent woman. She made bad choices, yes, but there is a fundamental lack of respect for the mother-child bond in this country."

In his work as a lawyer for children's rights -- at the Alliance for Children's Rights, then as managing director of child welfare reform at the Broad Foundation in Los Angeles and more recently on behalf of children in Alabama, Bridge says he meets relatively few "monsters." What is far more common is the absence of compassion.

Bridge is critical of congregate care. It was with some satisfaction that he saw the closure of MacLaren in 2003, referred to in an editorial in this newspaper as a publicly owned "human warehouse where unwanted youth were physically and psychologically abused over months or even years."

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