978-0-679-43979-0 / 067943979X

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

by Bernstein, Nina




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About the book:

At age 12, Shirley Wilder ran away from an abusive home and landed in New York City's foster-care system. By age 13, she was named the plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that challenged the city's 150-year-old system as unconstitutional. At 14, Shirley gave birth to a son, Lamont, who was soon swept up in the same system. This absorbing account by New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein follows the threads of the tragic lives of Shirley and Lamont Wilder and the lawsuit that bears their name. In the process it illuminates the city's--and the nation's--dysfunctional social welfare system and its impact on the children it purportedly helps.

The Wilder lawsuit was filed in 1973 by a passionate young lawyer who stuck by it through 26 years of litigation, without the case ever being fully resolved. The accusation: that New York City's system violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments for giving private religious agencies control of publicly financed foster-care beds. These mostly Catholic and Jewish agencies gave preference to white Catholic and Jewish children, while the growing numbers of black and Protestant children were sent to inappropriate institutions that left them with more problems than they had when they came. Such was the fate of Shirley, who, for lack of anywhere else to go, was placed in Hudson, a state reformatory for delinquents with no treatment services for abandoned or abused children. Hudson "looked like a camp from the outside and was unmistakably a prison within." There was rampant violence and sexual abuse, and girls were regularly punished by being put in "the hole," a 5-by-8-foot cell with no windows, furniture, or heat, which Shirley would later testify was like "Winter. Winter--all year round." But a case that named state and city officials, 77 voluntary agencies and their directors, and 84 individual defendants including nuns, rabbis, and clergymen, and that threatened to pit blacks and Jews against each other, was a case destined to enter a legal wilderness of avoidance and delay.

Shirley and Lamont's unforgettable stories reveal the deep fault lines in a system that often does more harm than good. While reforms come and go with little success, Bernstein makes clear that the child welfare system will never really change until there is a coming to terms with the system's place as "a political battleground for abiding national conflicts over race, religion, gender and inequality" and the "unacknowledged contradictions between policies that punish the 'undeserving poor' and pledge to help all needy children." --Lesley Reed

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