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'The Lost Children OF Wilder: The Epic Struggle To Change Foster care' by Nina Bernstein

Reporter documents heartbreak of child welfare system

Sunday, May 20, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer


The Lost Children OF Wilder: The Epic Struggle To Change Foster care

By Nina Bernstein

Pantheon Books

New York City’s chief judge, Judith Kaye, renowned as a crusading reformer of the courts, concedes in pragmatic humility that no proposal succeeds when good people oppose it.
That is one of the many lessons contained in this work by New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein, who details a class-action lawsuit intended to restructure foster care, as well as the life of the woman in whose name it was filed, Shirley Wilder.
The civil rights lawyer who conceived the suit, Marcia Lowry, agonizingly labored over the litigation for 26 years. Its accomplishments fell far short of her dreams of reforming a foster-care system that permitted sectarian agencies, mostly Catholic and Jewish, to accept children of their faith and reject black Protestant children such as Shirley Wilder, who ended up in substandard, state-run institutions.
Lowry’s demand for an end to discrimination against such children seemed so righteous that it could not fail. Yet it did, in part, because good people opposed it.
In recounting the lives of Wilder, now 39, and her son Lamont, Bernstein documents the tragedy of Lowry’s inability to achieve the reforms she so craved. Wilder found herself in the “care” of the child welfare system after both her mother and grandmother died and her father, who’d sexually abused her, didn’t want her.
He asked juvenile court to take her. When a judge acceded, Shirley became the daughter of the federal government, which didn’t prove to be any better a parent than her father. Uncle Sam sent the 12-year-old to deplorable state-run institutions, where she was raped and abused. She ran away, was sent back and then abused again. She became pregnant at 13, giving birth to Lamont in 1974, a year after the suit was filed.
As tragic and compelling as Shirley’s story is, the account of her son, Lamont, is even more riveting. With no family to rely on, no relative willing to support them, Shirley reluctantly placed him in “the system.”
Her caseworker promised that he’d be quickly adopted. It was a pledge that should have been easy to fulfill for a healthy infant. Even so, like so many promises in the child welfare system, this one was broken.
For most of his life, the boy lived in institutions and group homes that were essentially orphanages. The system never gave him the adoptive parents the caseworker had promised his mother. The system never gave him stability, the love a child needs to thrive or a family to belong to and lean on.
Ultimately, it was the author who reunited mother and son when she discovered the boy in 1990 while researching the Wilder case for New York Newsday. She wrote an award-winning series of stories about the case that grew, over the next decade, into this book.
To explain what happened to Shirley and Lamont, Bernstein recounts the infamous history of child welfare institutions, including the rise of what are now called “faith-based” foster care. These agencies, supported by the city’s wealthy, were created to care for needy Catholic and Jewish children.
These groups were offended when Lowry sued them, charging that if they accepted state money, they were prohibited from discriminating against black and Protestant children. Lowry ultimately won an unenforceable settlement. And, ironically, by then, the system was so overwhelmed with black Protestants that the sectarian agencies had to accept them to survive.
In the final chapters, Bernstein’s prose falls into flat newspaper style, filled with excessive detail. Early chapters describing the lives of Shirley and Lamont Wilder and Lowry, are more compelling, but they’re too heartbreaking to read in one sitting.
The stuff of juvenile court is achingly sad, and that’s one reason given for the failure of New York newspapers to cover it after Judge Kaye, in one of her bold reforms, granted them access in 1999.
In the absence of daily reporting by her own newspaper, Bernstein has provided a snapshot of the nation’s child welfare system, and it’s not the pretty picture imagined by those who believe the system fulfills its mission of saving children from abusive and neglectful parents.
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