The unfinished story of foster care outrage

The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care By Nina Bernstein Pantheon 482 pp., $27.50

Journalists have books they love - "Common Ground," by J. Anthony Lukas, for instance, and "There Are No Children Here," by Alex Kotlowitz - books that combine prodigious reporting with literary perceptiveness about human motives.

Nina Bernstein, a reporter for The New York Times, has given us a new one, "The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care." Her subject is a lawsuit, Wilder v. Sugarman, that rocked the New York City political landscape in 1973.

Wilder, as the suit was known, attacked the New York foster-care system at its core on the grounds that the system gave philanthropic organizations free rein to discriminate against African-American children.

For more than a century, foster care in New York had been a strange mixture of government funding and private prerogative. The city had legal responsibility for children abandoned by or removed from neglectful parents, but it turned day-to-day care of the children over to religious charities, which routinely rejected African-American children for placement. With nowhere else to place black foster children, the city resorted to housing them in inferior institutions, including detention facilities.

The pattern dismayed judges, social workers, and journalists, but few people saw it as clearly as Marcia Robinson Lowery, the young, bullheaded civil-liberties lawyer who launched the suit.

As Ms. Lowry saw it, the city demanded far too little in exchange for the large sums it paid to charities providing foster care. Not only did the city allow agencies to pick and choose among children, it failed to apply the most basic principles of accountability to the charities. No one could say with authority whether a child in foster care was receiving even minimal care.

Lowry's federal suit, which she filed as an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union, caused immediate pandemonium because her named defendants included influential philanthropists who were accustomed to being treated with deference by public officials.

In 1990, Nina Bernstein, then a reporter at Newsday in New York, decided to find Shirley Wilder, the African-American girl in whose name the suit had been filed. Bernstein discovered that Shirley, at 14, had given birth to a son, Lamont, and had placed him in foster care.

The story of Shirley's and then Lamont's journey through foster homes, psychiatric hospitals, juvenile lock-ups, homeless shelters, and the streets forms the backbone of this book.

Through meticulous reporting, Bernstein uncovered exactly how Shirley and Lamont lived as children. She unearthed confidential agency reports about them and tracked down a rich array of people who had responsibility for them in the years that mattered.

The torment they suffered is inescapably clear. Bernstein alternates chapters about Shirley and Lamont with chapters on the lawsuit, giving vivid accounts of the people and battles driving the case as it advanced through federal court.

Undoubtedly, Bernstein would have liked a better ending to her tale, one where good people fixed the system, and where two lost children grew into productive adults. But that's not how the story ended. Shirley died a crack addict, of AIDS, in early 1999, before she was 40. Lamont fathered a child, drifted into homelessness, and struggled to recover the verbal and musical talent he had shown before the chaos of his childhood overwhelmed him.

Marcia Robinson Lowry did prevail in court, winning a settlement that laid down rules for how children would be placed, but the settlement proved impossible to enforce. Lowry ultimately went back into federal court with an entirely new class action suit, Marisol v. Giuliani, this time to put the entire system into court receivership.

Ironically, the Wilder lawsuit had an impact on the city's child-welfare system, even without a happy ending. Soon after the suit was launched, Bernstein shows, officials in city and state government started taking steps to rein in the private charities. For the first time, the city demanded written contracts covering what the charities would provide in return for public funding. The philanthropists fussed, but the rudiments of an accountability system began to take shape.

Often, reporters mine their finest truths by tagging along as witnesses. So Bernstein picks a truth out of the landscape that even Lowry seemed to miss.In the welfare of children, poverty trumps legal and personal reform. As Bernstein watches Lamont Wilder and his girlfriend, struggling at the close of the book in low-wage jobs - to hold onto apartments, to pay for babysitting, to keep their toddler out of foster care - you see exactly what she means.

Until we figure out a way to conquer poverty, no reform of the foster-care system will produce a much better ending.

Peggy J. Farber reports on children and family issues for GothamGazette.com, an online magazine about New York City politics.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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