Every month, a new art therapy project created by the...

Every month, a new art therapy project created by the kids and therapists at MercyFirst in Syosset graces the cafeteria’s chalk board. Credit: Newsday/Lane Filler

When the Sisters of Mercy paid $7,500 for 120 acres of farmland in Syosset in 1894, they did so to provide a summer retreat for the children at the Sisters’ Brooklyn orphanage.

But the order quickly decided its ministry for children would be better served by another orphanage at the location, and it thrived for over a century. When residential foster care was a more accepted option, it housed 100 children or more. High school sports teams won league basketball championships. Kids were adopted, or graduated, and went on to independent lives.

The current chairman of MercyFirst’s board, Paul Travers, was brought to the Syosset facility as a baby and quickly adopted by a family in Massapequa Park. Now he’s a 62-year-old financier living in Connecticut.

Once in a while, the kids would get into a scrape. But earlier this month, six residents were charged with vandalizing and stealing from a dozen local businesses, a late-night incident caught on surveillance cameras.

The owners were angry. Some Syosset residents were frightened and disturbed. Miscreant teens can be scary. 

And the fear of such teens has negatively influenced the attitude of local residents toward the facility because MercyFirst has also operated a shelter for unaccompanied, undocumented immigrant children since 2013, and because it has operated a “Raise the Age” residential diversion program for youths convicted of nonviolent crimes since 2018.        

MercyFirst's foster children were not locked in buildings or pinned on campus by high barbed wire, because they were not sent to MercyFirst to be punished.

But in response to the incident, and to a changing world, MercyFirst is closing the residential foster program. All but two of the 17 kids in that program were gone by Monday. MercyFirst is ending the program because it recognizes the validity of community fears, and in order to be a good neighbor … and to try to run its other programs with minimal controversy and abundant local support.

MercyFirst President and chief executive Renee Skolaski said the two remaining residential programs on this campus — “Raise the Age,” with no residents in place currently, and the one for unaccompanied minors, with about 25 — have never had a community incident involving police.

“The unaccompanied minors are recovering from their journey, and scared and uncertain about what’s outside,” Skolaski said. “And ones in the Raise the Age program face huge consequences if they get in trouble. They are in the community at times, they can even have jobs at Stop & Shop, say, or McDonald's, but they don’t commit crimes.”

Residential foster care is now considered inferior to placement with families. Skolaski said a 2021 state law that strongly prioritizes placing kids with families means even fewer children get sent to institutions. The ones who do, now, are the most difficult cases, often facing behavioral, emotional, and intellectual challenges.

But they won’t be sent to Syosset any more.

MercyFirst exists in Syosset to serve the needs of children, most of whom have endured hardships we cannot imagine. It has closed the program that caused problems in the community. Neither its clients nor its staff are involved in the politics of immigration or criminal justice: They are simply succoring children.

And that’s a ministry which, when operated as responsibly as MercyFirst has for over a century, we should be proud to host, and support, in our communities.

Columnist Lane Filler's opinions are his own.