Agnes Butler is not an average mother. Butler has opened her home to 38 boys in the foster care system since 1982. She currently hosts six young men in her row house on the 1700 block of North Willington Street, southwest of Temple’s campus.
Her boys, Tyree, 12, Khalil, 12, Terrell, 14, “Chip,” 15, Hakeem, 17, and Shawn Porter, 21, treat her largely as a mother figure.
None of the children knew Butler or the others in the house before coming under her foster care. Still, Butler, 52, finds a way to unite them all as a family.
“She takes good care of us,” Tyree, who has been with Butler for four years, said. “Mom: I feel good calling her that.”
Tyree’s father, recently released from prison, is taking parenting classes and is determined to reunite with his son. The ideal ending for children in the foster care system is reunification with biological parents, but Butler said this rarely happens.
“I feel like my work has been done when the parents are willing to work with me,” Butler said.
Even though Tyree thinks often of living with his father, he said he would always have a place with Butler.
“I’ll still belong here,” he said.
In Philadelphia, some 3,000 children are taken from abusive or neglectful homes annually.
Despite troubling odds and overwhelming numbers, Butler has had plenty of success to keep her motivated.
The first young man Butler took in was Marvin McDaniels, who is now 40 years old and married with four children.
“I had been to three different [foster] homes and a group home before I got to Ms. Butler,” McDaniels said. “She put me before a lot of things. She was always there mentally and physically.”
“When I wouldn’t go to school, she would walk the pavement to find me,” said McDaniels, who works as a welder near his home in Coatesville, Pa. “She opened her heart and her home … she basically changed my life.”
Butler said she only once took in a girl.
“I found that was a mistake,” Butler said, adding that she enjoys outdoor activities that boys typically like.
Butler has won numerous awards and recognition for her devoted service to the children who need it most. Recently, Butler received the Foster Parent of the Year Award from the Pennsylvania State Foster Parent Association.
Butler was nominated by Tabor Children’s Services, Inc., the organization that places young men with Butler. Tabor also provides Butler the monthly per-child stipends that Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services gives all foster parents.
Tabor is a private, nonprofit child welfare agency that coordinates foster care with Philadelphia’s DHS.
Butler, who is now a parent truant officer for Philadelphia’s Anti-Drug, Anti-Violence Network, said she always knew she would work with kids.
“My father gave me this house to run a daycare [program],” Butler said. “When I was little I was always babysitting in the neighborhood or just helping out.”
She speaks of her boys as if they were her own.
“There’s always something. Hakeem wants to go to college,” Butler said, watching Tyree, Khalil and Terrell do their homework. “They’re good boys, but sometimes they don’t know how to show it.”
Her nearly 24 years as a foster parent haven’t always been easy. Butler said sometimes it’s overwhelming.
“Kids have put holes in walls, once my van was taken and it was crashed, just destroyed,” Butler said. “Two boys once set the house on fire, wiped the entire back [of the house] out.”
Rather than separate the boys who started the fire, Butler spent much of her life savings to rent rooms in a hotel while her home was rebuilt.
Butler’s story has garnered attention before.
“The [Philadelphia] Inquirer did a news report once and I got such a response,” Butler said. “The house is always open for students or professors that want to help.”
Chris Foran, a sophomore criminal justice major at Temple, recently began tutoring the boys but said more help is needed.
“[The boys] are trying to be the best people they can be,” Foran said.
“It’s a 24/7 job, every day of the week,” Butler said. “But I never regret doing it.”
Porter, who is taking classes at Philadelphia Community College and is the oldest boy under Butler’s care, said he wants to make a difference like he knows his foster mother has.
“I’d be dead or lost to the streets [without Agnes Butler]. I’ve had a rough past, but having her in my corner makes it different,” Porter said. “Maybe someday I’ll do what she does, let her retire, and I’ll take over the house.”
Christopher Wink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.