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“An enthralling story from start to finish [that] reads like a true-crime novel…expert reporting.”–The Baltimore Sun
“Brilliantly researched…. Its legal analysis is rich…the drama is human.”–The New York Times Book Review (front-page review)
“A heartbreaking, intricate account as epic in scope as the subtitle suggests….A truly compelling read.” — The San Diego Union-Tribune
From the Trade Paperback edition.
|Notes on Reporting and Sources||445|
Early in 1990, researching a newspaper article on New York City foster care, I spent a morning with a stack of court documents from a long-standing lawsuit known as Wilder. The lawsuit, citing the First Amendment's separation of church and state and the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection, had challenged New York City's 150-year-old foster-care system in 1973 for giving private, mostly religious agencies control of publicly financed foster-care beds. The Catholic and Jewish charities that dominated the field were by law allowed to give preference to their own kind. Black, Protestant children had to wait or do without. The system did poorly by all children, the suit charged, because it placed them according to creed and convenience, not according to their needs.
In the marble and mahogany splendor of Manhattan's federal courthouse in the 1990s, lawyers often likened the Wilder case to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the suit in Dickens's Bleak House that dragged on for so long that people forgot what it meant. Wilder's course paralleled a national trajectory from great optimism to great skepticism about the possibility of righting social wrongs through the courts. Yet Wilder had engaged the passions of three generations of social reformers even as it fell short of helping three generations of children in foster care.
Halfway through the legal papers, I found, tucked in a paragraph of the fourth amended complaint, a fact that I could not forget: Shirley Wilder, the named plaintiff, had given birth to a son and placed him in foster care in 1974. I wanted to know what had happened to that boy, and to understand why.
The two-hundred year history of American child welfare is littered with programs once hailed as reforms and later decried as harmful or ineffective, only to emerge again in the guise of new solutions to past failures. Why do these problems seem so intractable, so often only redefined, rather than remedied, by changed laws and new philosophies?
The answers, I believe, are mirrored in the Wilder lawsuit. They lie in the child welfare system's place as a political battleground for abiding national conflicts over race, religion, gender, and inequality. They are found in the unacknowledged contradictions between policies that punish the "undeserving poor" and pledges to help all needy children. And during twenty-six years of Wilder litigation, the lost children of Wilder grew up with the consequences.
Shirley Wilder was herself a motherless child of twelve when she fled from an abusive home into the net of the child welfare system. She was thirteen when, in 1973, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed the class-action lawsuit that would make her name a routine entry on the federal court docket. She was fourteen and still in the system's charge when she gave birth to the child she couldn't keep.
Shirley Wilder had disappeared, I was told when I tried to find her, and her son was one of thousands of anonymous children growing up behind the veil of confidentiality that hides the foster-care system from public scrutiny. For three years I followed other stories to other places, but every so often I checked back to see whether Shirley Wilder had resurfaced. In the spring of 1993, she did.
"Find out about my son," she begged, a slim, impulsive woman in cut-offs and T-shirt, living like an interloper amid the plastic slipcovers and graduation photos of another family's East Harlem apartment. She was thirty-three then, her parental rights long gone. But she was still haunted by the memory of the baby she had left to the system, and by the federal court case that her own suffering had set in motion a year before he was born. The system, she has said once in a deposition, was "winter, all year round"; she never meant to leave her own child in that cold.
Historical amnesia has shielded us from a full understanding of our child welfare dilemma. For three generations, "child welfare" has been a category that has covered child abuse, child neglect, foster care, and adoption, but not "welfare," or Aid to Families with Dependent Children. In public opinion and public policy, the universe of child welfare is peopled by deviant parents and unlucky children from families of all income groups, while "welfare" is a program for poor folks. This division tends to downplay the reality that children in foster care and at risk of entering foster care are overwhelmingly the children of the poor.
During long periods of American history, the relationship between poverty and family breakup was unambiguous: with no public relief, parents too poor to support their children had to put them into orphanages or up for indenture or adoption. The old and familiar conviction underlying such policies, that parents who cannot rear their children without public aid are almost by definition unfit to bring up the next generation, still holds sway in this age of welfare reform.
The effort to sever the destiny of needy children from the fate of their unworthy parents repeatedly slams against unyielding truths of child development: the need for intensive human attachment, the traumatic effect of childhood separations, the rapid transformation of yesterday's children into today's childbearers. It defies hard economic realities, too, like the fact that even mediocre substitute care for children (whether in foster home or institution) costs much more than family subsidies, and that adoption, which is ideally both cost-effective and humane, is also governed by unforgiving laws of supply and demand.
There has long been an iron rule in American social welfare policy: conditions must be worse for the dependent poor than for anyone who works. The seldom-acknowledged corollary is that the subsidized care of other people's children must be undesirable enough, or scarce enough, to play a role in this system of deterrence. In the late nineteenth century, charity reformer Josephine Shaw Lowell expressed this view when she insisted that the "honest laborer" should not see the children of the drunkard "enjoy advantages which his own may not hope for." Annie Fields, another nineteenth-century American reformer, argued that men would struggle to support their families only if they found "the room cold and the table bare," and not if they believed their children would be generously cared for by charity. In periods of widening inequality like theirs and like our own, the result of this invisible law becomes so harsh for children that it is difficult to reconcile it with the rhetoric of benevolence. Yet the stronger the desire to discipline society -- and growing inequality demands stricter social discipline -- the stronger the appeal of schemes that promise to rescue poor children by removing them from their failing families. Only with the passage of the Aid to Dependent Children provisions of the Social Security Act in 1935 did the number of children in out-of-home care decline dramatically, to stay down during more than two decades of narrowing income gaps. The placement rate rose again after 1961, when new rules allowed federal money to follow the poorest children into private, nonprofit foster care of every kind.
By the 1990s, a different kind of child welfare rhetoric had gathered momentum across the nation. Its byword was "tough love," calling for personal responsibility for adults and modern-day orphanages for unadoptable children whose parents failed the test. It envisioned little role for government in child welfare beyond contracting with the private sector; it harked back to a time when churches and charity did the rest, and poor children were said to be the better for it. This vision was remarkably similar to what was known a hundred years ago as the New York system, whereby state wards were placed in private, mostly religiously affiliated agencies at public expense, on the assumption that charitable bodies could be trusted to spend money in the best interest of children. Nowhere did that basic structure take hold so completely and last so long as in New York. It was the very system that Wilder tried to transform.
The meaning of Wilder is inscribed in the lives of its protagonists, in their burden of history, in their struggle against the past. This book is a quest to understand what went wrong -- in one family's entanglement in the foster-care system, and in recurrent crusades to make American child welfare fulfill its promise of benevolence.
Excerpted by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Copyright © 2001 by Nina Bernstein.
Posted November 20, 2002
This book is full of fascinating and horrible details about New York's foster care system. Despite the incredible amount of information to digest, it is well well-written and easy to read. This book exploded my naive perception that children in foster care were cared for and treated well. It seems that most children (unless white, Catholic, or Jewish) were stuffed wherever there was a bed--or just an agency willing to take a child for money. Children who are removed from abusive homes seem to be worse off in the foster care system: they are still abused, neglected, misunderstood, and have no permanent caretakers. This book shows that more than ever that the color of a child's skin determines the worth of the child and the type of care he will receive. The other theme in the book is the idea that poverty is still a crime, and the people who know the least about poverty are the ones trying to fix it. Poverty is what keeps the child foster system in business.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 5, 2001
First there's the story -- a gripping tale that puts you in the shoes of Shirley Wilder, an abused girl sent to a harsh reform school in 1973 not because she committed a crime, but because she was a black Protestant. The New York foster care system let Jewish and Catholic agencies, which controlled most of the public money for care, give preference to kids of their own religion. Shirley runs away, becomes pregnant at 14, and must leave her son to the same system. His story is heartwrenching -- you'll need tissues. At one point he is sent to be adopted by a white couple in Minnesota who give him up less than a year later, passing him on at 6 to another white family who soon send him back to New York. But the human story is intercut with a fascinating account of the lawsuit challenging this system, a battle between a civil liberties lawyer, Marcia Lowry, and the New York establishment, including the well-meaning board members of the religious charities, the arrogant partners of the biggest law firms, and the politicians who rely on ethnic/religious patronage to stay in office. Finally, woven into the story, there's eye-opening history, like the fact that nuns at New York Foundling used to carry babies to the Museum of Natural History for an anthropololgist to decide whether they had black blood. If they did, they stayed in the institution instead of being adopted -- and this went on through the 1960s! The narrative reaches 2000, with a twist that brings home how much is wrong with the way we treat poor families today. You don't have to be a lawyer or a social worker to appreciate this masterfully written book, but for anyone working with children or in civil liberties, it is a must.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 15, 2001
This is an incredible book. Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, it seamlessly weaves the story of a family trapped in New York City's foster care system, the history of foster care in New York, and the struggle of a small group of dedicated lawyers who wanted to make a difference. It should be required reading for anyone who works with kids, especially in a legal context. Bernstein provides an objective but devastating critique of the City's failed efforts to help the neediest children in New York, as well as a moving story about the people behind the statistics. I've recommended it to many friends.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 21, 2008
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Posted July 26, 2010
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Posted March 9, 2012
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