The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care

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In 1973 Marcia Lowry, a young civil liberties attorney, filed a controversial class-action suit that would come to be known as Wilder, which challenged New York City's operation of its foster-care system. Lowry's contention was that the system failed the children it was meant to help because it placed them according to creed and convenience, not according to need. The plaintiff was thirteen-year-old Shirley Wilder, an abused runaway whose childhood had been shaped by the system's inequities. Within a year Shirley...
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2001 Hard cover First edition. New in new dust jacket. Tight binding with clean text. New. First Edition. Cover ihas slight shelfwear. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. With dust ... jacket. 496 p. Audience: General/trade. A 1973 class-action suit known as Wilder was filed in New York City, challenging the operation of that city's foster-care system. The named plaintiff was 13-year-old Shirley Wilder, an abused runaway whose childhood was shaped by the system's iniquities. Award-winning journalist Bernstein began reporting on Wilder in the early 1990s. She now gives us the full history of a case that reveals the racial, religious, and political faultlines in America's child-welfare arrangements. Read more Show Less

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2001 Hard cover STATED 1ST EDITION, 1ST PRINTING New in new dust jacket. Signed by previous owner. BRIGHT CLEAN, AS NEW Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. With dust jacket. 496 p. ... Audience: General/trade. Read more Show Less

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Overview

In 1973 Marcia Lowry, a young civil liberties attorney, filed a controversial class-action suit that would come to be known as Wilder, which challenged New York City's operation of its foster-care system. Lowry's contention was that the system failed the children it was meant to help because it placed them according to creed and convenience, not according to need. The plaintiff was thirteen-year-old Shirley Wilder, an abused runaway whose childhood had been shaped by the system's inequities. Within a year Shirley would give birth to a son and relinquish him to the same failing system.

Seventeen years later, with Wilder still controversial and still in court, Nina Bernstein tried to find out what had happened to Shirley and her baby. She was told by child-welfare officials that Shirley had disappeared and that her son was one of thousands of anonymous children whose circumstances are concealed by the veil of confidentiality that hides foster care from public scrutiny. But Bernstein persevered.

The Lost Children of Wilder gives us, in galvanizing and compulsively readable detail, the full history of a case that reveals the racial, religious, and political fault lines in our child-welfare system, and lays bare the fundamental contradiction at the heart of our well-intended efforts to sever the destiny of needy children from the fate of their parents. Bernstein takes us behind the scenes of far-reaching legal and legislative battles, at the same time as she traces, in heartbreaking counterpoint, the consequences as they are played out in the life of Shirley's son, Lamont. His terrifying journey through the system has produced a man with deep emotional wounds, a stifled yearning for family, and a son growing up in the system's shadow.

In recounting the failure of the promise of benevolence, The Lost Children of Wilder makes clear how welfare reform can also damage its intended beneficiaries. A landmark achievement of investigative reporting and a tour de force of social observation, this book will haunt every reader who cares about the needs of children.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Shirley Wilder was 13 and pregnant in 1973 when her lawyer filed a class-action suit challenging New York City foster care system, which allowed the Catholic and Jewish charities who played the largest role in the system to place children according to creed and convenience, not need. In 1990, with that case is still in the courts, Nina Bernstein set out to track Wilder and the child she had given up. Bernstein takes the reader behind the scenes of the foster care system, revealing its frustrations and failures through the lens of two people's lives.
Tanya Luhrmann
. . . a brilliantly researched account of an attempt to make the New York City foster care system fair for all its children. . . . Its legal analysis is rich, but . . . the drama is human.
New York Times Book Review
Ellen Goodman
Nina Bernstein's fine reporting is more like archaeology. She searched down through layer after layer to show how the foster care system failed children, one generation after the next. ``The Lost Children of Wilder'' is a brilliant reconstruction of all the problems illuminated by a long-running lawsuit that makes Dickens' Jarndyce v. Jarndyce look swift and just.
Alex Kotlowitz
Nina Bernstein has pulled off a remarkable feat of reporting and storytelling that pushes us to reconsider how we handle children who are without home or family. A disturbing and riveting narrative that should be required reading for anyone who professes concern for children.
David Rothman
This book joins a powerful analysis of law as an engine of social change with the fascinating story of the lives of a mother and son caught in the web of foster care and child-welfare agencies. Bernstein captures all the import and meaning of a legal case that split the philanthropic and civil liberties communities like no other. The Lost Children of Wilder is insightful and riveting, illuminating both the political and the personal.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this first-rate investigation, New York Times reporter Bernstein explores the genesis and aftermath of the landmark 1973 legal case filed by young ACLU attorney Marcia Lowry against the New York State foster-care system. Known as Wilder for its 14-year-old African-American plaintiff, Shirley "Pinky" Wilder, the suit claimed Jewish and Catholic child welfare services had a lock on foster care funding and placements. Like Susan Sheehan in Life for Me Ain't Been No Crystal Stair, Bernstein illuminates broader social issues through the story of Shirley; Lamont, the son she bore at 14; and Lamont's young son--all graduates of New York's hellish child welfare system. The tale is gut-wrenchingly Dickensian--all the more so because, as Bernstein shows, the well-meaning 19th-century Jewish and Catholic philanthropists, clerics and parents who founded and expanded the child welfare system in New York ultimately deprived huge numbers of children of their legal and human rights as the demographics of New York changed. It took 25 years and many more lawsuits before the reforms mandated by Wilder began to be realized. In the interim, Lamont endured the same excruciating experiences his mother had suffered, including physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, witnessing the deaths of other children in foster care and losing his own child to the foster care system. A crack addict, Shirley died of AIDS at 40. Despite these horrors, the book ends with the hopeful postscript that Lamont's son currently lives with his mother, Kisha, and visits his now self-supporting father on weekends. Ten years in the making, this viscerally powerful history of institutionalized child abuse and the criminalization of poverty, of civil rights and social change, is compelling and essential reading. Agent, Gloria Loomis. (Feb. 28) Forecast: Like Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities, this book has the potential to jumpstart a national conversation about the failings of our social safety net for impoverished children. If it garners the review attention it deserves, it will find a solid audience among readers of Kozol's and Sheehan's books. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This book is a fascinating history of 28 years of change in the child foster care system in New York City, where sectarian interests controlled the placement of homeless, neglected, abused, and emotionally disturbed children and adolescents. The book follows the lives of lead plaintiff Shirley Wilder and her son as Shirley goes from homeless preteen to teenage mother at 14 and is shifted from home to foster home to group home to institution. Her son grows up in foster care and institutions. The book simultaneously follows a 1986 federal lawsuit, which became known as Wilder, brought on behalf of foster care children in New York City by the ACLU Children's Rights Project. New York Times reporter Bernstein conducted extensive interviews of many of the participants for this book, which is compelling both for its elucidation of child welfare practices and for its demonstration of how litigation can affect social policy. A necessary purchase for New York State academic and larger public libraries and a very useful one for social welfare and policy collections nationwide.--Mary Jane Brustman, Univ. at Albany Libs., NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“A wrenching account. . . . A brilliant, moving chronicle of a bright little girl named Shirley Wilder and the dogged lawyer…who tried to find her a home.” —The New York Times

“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


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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679439790
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/13/2001
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 6.45 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Nina Bernstein lives in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt

IIn 1973, a young ACLU attorney filed a controversial class-action lawsuit that challenged New York City’s operation of its foster-care system. The plaintiff was an abused runaway named Shirley Wilder who had suffered from the system’s inequities. Wilder, as the case came to be known, was waged for two and a half decades, becoming a battleground for the conflicts of race, religion, and politics that shape America’s child-welfare system.

The Lost Children of Wilder gives us the galvanizing history of this landmark case and the personal story at its core. Nina Bernstein takes us behind the scenes of far-reaching legal and legislative battles, but she also traces the life of Shirley Wilder and her son, Lamont, born when Shirley was only fourteen and relinquished to the very system being challenged in her name. Bernstein’s account of Shirley and Lamont’s struggles captures the heartbreaking consequences of the child welfare system’s best intentions and deepest flaws. In the tradition of There Are No Children Here, this is a major achievement of investigative journalism and a tour de force of social observation, a gripping book that will haunt every reader who cares about the needs of children.
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Table of Contents

Introduction xi
Part 1 1972-1974 1
Part 2 1974-1981 103
Part 3 1981-1983 243
Part 4 1984-1989 313
Part 5 1990-2000 369
Postscript 443
Notes on Reporting and Sources 445
Case References 459
Acknowledgments 461
Index 463
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Introduction

Introduction

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.

--Nina Bernstein

Excerpted by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Copyright © 2001 by Nina Bernstein.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2001

    Non-fiction Dickens That You Can't Put Down

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2001

    A must read

    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.

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