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Helping children find their way home

Activist works for change in Albania

Fisher Avenue in Newton Highlands has been seeing less and less of longtime resident Harriet Epstein.

Over the past five years, Epstein has taught public health in Ghana and helped survivors of Kosovo atrocities get counseling. Now she is in Albania trying to transform the lives of the nation's abandoned children, a challenge she describes as the greatest of her 35-year career.

Epstein has spent her adult life advocating for children. She worked nearly 25 years with troubled youth in the Boston area before taking her skills overseas. All the while, she says, her mission has been to bring child care out of institutions and into communities.

"Institutions are lousy places for [children] to be," she said. "They come from disorganized, disrupted families or communities. Institutions aren't going to help them. It's what happens in their community that's important. We've got to get to the kids before they get to the institutions."

Epstein arrived in Albania last October to take charge of a children's home as country director for the British charity Hope and Homes for Children. But she said that her goal is to close the home, not improve it.

Durres Children's Home is a last refuge for abandoned children in and around Shkozet, a town on Albania's Adriatic coast. Some of the children are left at hospitals, some on the beach, or even in the street. Their parents discard them for any number of reasons: poverty, alcoholism, or even simply because they have had more children than they can care for. Shame, too, is a factor.

"There is also still a great deal of stigma for a girl to have a baby outside of marriage, so often they come from the villages to Tirana or one of the cities, give false names, and sign a declaration of abandonment for their babies," Epstein said in an e-mail from Albania. "Sometimes they don't sign the declaration and sometimes they are more ambivalent and visit every few months."

Georgette Mulheir, head of programs for Hope and Homes, said Epstein's mission is to transform Durres from a residential home that serves a handful of children into the hub of a network of services that support families throughout the surrounding community. If Epstein succeeds by the time her contract ends in October 2005, the Shkozet project could be the model for a new child welfare system in Albania.

"Conditions are absolutely appalling for [Albanian] children in institutions," said Mulheir. "Children need to grow up in families. Albania can easily take on this idea. It's just a matter of understanding."

At Durres, Epstein is helping to draw up laws that would make it easier for adults to become guardians and foster parents. She is also setting up a system to track children after they have been adopted or placed in foster homes. Finally, Epstein hopes to streamline an adoption process that is long and complicated, even for the many local families on the waiting list. (It is virtually impossible for foreigners to adopt Albanian children.)

Furthermore, conditions there can be harsh. Hot water and electricity are luxuries in a country where the average wages for a day's labor are $1. And while some medical facilities are well equipped, the quality of care can be poor.

But the success stories help keep Epstein going, such as one about a toddler named Ilir adopted by a couple who said they had been waiting 15 years.

"Ilir, a beautiful little 2-year-old fellow whose light brown curly locks have just been cut, shy and with big brown eyes, will be going to an Albanian couple who are totally mad about him," Epstein said in an e-mail. "It is just remarkable to see how he has blossomed. . . . This once frightened (a week ago) little fellow is starting to play kick ball with his 'Babi' [father] and loves being carried around by his mother who keeps feeding him pears and apples and other homemade wonders. The other evening when I dropped in they had a boom box playing traditional music in the visitors' room and the three of them were dancing."

Epstein's devotion to children stems from her childhood in Caracas, Venezuela, where she saw legions of youngsters living in the streets.

"My mother was . . . very active in the women's organization called the Children's Service League that provided services and funds for children," she said. "She ran the shop that sold the used clothing and books donated by the international community and others who could afford to give away clothing."

In the 1960s, Epstein came to college at Suffolk University in Boston. Soon after graduating, she began to work with at-risk children, first for the Department of Youth Services, then for public schools in Boston's suburbs. With each assignment she became more convinced that large institutions such as detention centers or residential homes are inherently unable to address children's needs. Services are crucial, but they must support entire communities, not just handfuls of troubled youth.

In 1976, Epstein got an opportunity to put her convictions into action as a child psychologist for child community services at Massachusetts Mental Health Center. She served the burgeoning Hispanic community of the Mission Hill neighborhood, where the center was located. Epstein understood from her own Venezuelan upbringing, however, that Hispanics would be reluctant to come to the "crazy house" for services.

Epstein broke with orthodoxy and began counseling Hispanic children on site at Brighton's troubled Edison Middle School, where the Mission Hill pupils were being bused. As the pupils in the Hispanic clusters connected with one another, they developed a sense of community and trouble decreased.

In the 1980s, the state-funded School Consultation and Training program brought clinical services to students throughout Boston's public school system. Maggie Goodwin, the program's former clinical director, said Epstein was instrumental in securing the funding needed to bring mental health care to students.

"Harriet was really the instigator, along with [former state Representative] Kevin Fitzgerald . . . to get funding set aside for school-based mental health services," Goodwin said. "She had set the groundwork in Mission Hill . . . and the money was set aside . . . in the budget. It was an exciting time."

As social spending and enthusiasm for new child welfare initiatives in Massachusetts flagged in the 1990s, Epstein decided to pursue doctoral studies in social policy at Brandeis University. After earning her degree in 1996, she looked for opportunities to pursue her interest in child welfare overseas, first in Africa and then in the Balkans.

No matter where she goes, though, Epstein, who is single and has no children of her own, said the families on Fisher Avenue are never far from her mind.

"The Nogradys, the Capsticks, the Kozols, etc. . . . It has been great to see the kids grow up," she wrote. "And now a new generation is moving in next to me."

And although the 24-year Newton resident cannot be present for neighborhood festivities, she still tries to stay in touch.

"Pauline Kozol . . . now winters in Florida," she said of her Newton neighbor, the aunt of author Jonathan Kozol. "The neighborhood did a spontaneous block party for her 90th birthday. Unfortunately I was in Albania, but I sent e-mails!"