Melanie Folstad wants to help sterilize crack addicts. First she has to meet them.
The 2 a.m. gloom settles in over the alley behind the 800 block of I Street NE. Melanie Folstad is pale, lost in the spotlights from the five squad cars that line the narrow pathway. Sitting upright in the front passenger seat of Officer Mark A. Dickerson's cruiser, Folstad surveys the scene. To the left, the spotlights reveal a run-down crack house, inside of which several officers, including Dickerson, are pursuing a robbery suspect. Silence sets in. Masked in shadow, a few nearby shrubs sway in the breeze.
"This is too much," Folstad says, craning her neck to see when the cops will return. "Too much."
It's not the thrill of chasing bad guys that has Folstad, a Chevy Chase resident, spending her Saturday night riding with Dickerson through the Metropolitan Police Department's (MPD) 5th District. One of about 300 national volunteers for Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity (CRACK), an Anaheim, Calif.-based nonprofit that pays crack addicts $200 if they agree to have long-term or permanent birth control, Folstad promotes the program to D.C. residents. Tonight, she's riding with Dickerson to visit new neighborhoods and sell residents on the concept.
"I don't pay attention to that type of stuff," Folstad says, referring to the drumbeat of criticism that has followed the cash-for-sterilization program into Washington and 15 other U.S. cities. "I believe in the program and the good it can do."
After a few hours with Dickerson, though, Folstad exudes less confidence. Standing at the corner of 9th and I Streets NEa popular spot for marijuana dealersshe nervously shuffles CRACK's laminated information cards. The colorful 3-by-5 cards implore crack users to make the responsible choice and get birth control. On one side, CRACK founder Barbara Harris poses with her four adopted children.
Dickerson and two fellow officers pat down an 18-year-old named Demetrius. Folstad hesitates, then walks around the corner. A middle-aged black woman, standing in her front yard, talks to another cop. Head slightly down, Folstad approaches the woman and offers her a card, her arm stretching over the iron fence that separates the two.
The womanwho has given no indication to anyone that she smokes crackbrushes Folstad off with a quick wave of her right arm. "I don't want any of that crap," she mutters.
Folstad retreats to Dickerson's car. She walks hurriedly, looking at her shoes.
"I could never understand the true depths of what they have been through," Folstad says. "I figured a ride-along would be a good way to get to know the people I'm trying to reach."
CRACK founder Harris doesn't concern herself with image. She can't afford to. Her organization has come under fire in each city it enters. The Orange County, Calif., resident has spent inordinate amounts of time facing down detractors since 1995, when she proposed a law in her home state that would have made it a crime to give birth while on drugs. The state legislature shot down the bill.
Harris started CRACK in 1994, after discovering how many children in California were born to drug-addicted parents. Harris and her husband's four adopted kids were all born to crack-addicted moms. (They also have three biological children.) "I don't know why people insist on making this an issue of race," says Harris, a white woman married to a black man, in response to accusations that her organization focuses on lower-income minority communities. "We're trying to target a habit. All drug addicts chose to be drug addicts. I don't care what others say. We're focusing on that behavior, and that's why we've gotten so much support."
People like Folstad, Harris' only D.C. operative, work for free. CRACK gets its funding from private donations. Its highest-profile donor is conservative talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger.
According to CRACK's Web site, 282 clients, including two males, have completed the process and received $200. Harris says that she has received 65 phone calls from prospective D.C. participants since July, although only one District resident has agreed to receive long-term birth control so far.
"They're moral entrepreneurs, going out to fix a social ill in their own way," says William McDonald, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University who specializes in criminology. "But they are amateurs. And because of the nature of what they're promoting, some people may take issue with it."
Charles Brown, program manager at the Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration's central intake office is one. "People who don't understand situations like this compound the problem," Brown says. "If you want to donate your time to a cause, that's fine. But laymen shouldn't be doing a job like that."
As someone committed to promoting conventional recovery programs, Brown fundamentally opposes CRACK's methods. But even some supporters are wary about the organization's habit of facing serious social ills via an army of folks like Folstad, a western Minnesota native who says she doesn't even know what marijuana smells like. "What they're doing will eventually help people," says Marianne Ali, a former crack addict who now works at D.C. Central Kitchen. "But they should really have an understanding of addiction. It runs a lot deeper than just the people they encounter."
Folstad says that she received no formal training from Harris when she signed on last June. But both she and Harris insist that those who participate in the program are fully aware of its ramifications. "My volunteers are qualified to do this because they have seen the devastating effects of crack," says Harris, who estimates that 10 percent of her volunteers are former crack addicts. "Because of their experiences, they not only talk the talk, they walk the walk."
Though Folstad isn't exactly street-savvy, she has one criterion nailed down: She and her husband currently care for three children born to two different crack-addicted mothersone fully adopted, the other two foster children. Folstad says that she speaks with the kids' moms about twice a month, and they provide her with a window into the realities of crack addiction.
Dickerson's squad car creeps through the streets of Ivy City, a section of Northeast occupied mostly by warehouses. He pulls to a stop and rolls down his window. There stands one of Folstad's likely targets, a prostitute looking to turn her next trick. Folstad remains glued to her seat. Dickerson tells the woman to go home, then drives away.
"There were times when I was scared, when I didn't know what was going on," admits Folstad later. "But I wish I had gotten out and talked to some of those prostitutes."
Some of the organization's critics, though, think it's just as well that she didn't. In fact, they're outraged that the city's police force would ferry Folstad around town on a highly controversial advertising mission. "Any involvement by the MPD in the administration or promotion of the CRACK program...is highly inappropriate," says Rajani Bhatia, coordinator for the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment, a nonprofit group that also protested the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority's July decision to run free ads for CRACK on buses. "Ultimately, [Harris] would like to treat low-income drug users as criminals, rather than women in need of treatment."
According to MPD officials, it is not against department policy for Folstad to use ride-alongs to help spread her message. "Once she's out of the car, she can do whatever she wants," says Sgt. Joe Gentile, the department spokesperson.
It's just that, as it turned out, Folstad didn't want to do very much outreach work. "The biggest problem is that I have no idea what these people go through," says Folstad later. "They look at me as just another white person from the suburbs, who can't help them at all. I learned a lot of things from this ride-alongprimarily, that I just don't get it."
For her next foray in the name of birth control, Folstad will seek somewhat greener pastures in which to spread the word. "I'm going to where people fit my demographic," she says. Next stop: Howard County. CP