A City Fails Its Kids

The Lost Children of Wilderby By Nina BernsteinPantheon Books. 482p; $27.50.

All too often, significant court cases fail to arouse universal interest. Confusing jargon and endless deliberations conspire to numb the public to these cases, despite their importance. The class-action suit known as Wilder, which plodded through courts for 26 years, could have been one of thema case with great societal implications doomed to obscurity because of its complexity. We have the reporter Nina Bernstein to thank for saving Wilder from this lamentable fate. In 1993, then with New York Newsday, she confronted Wilder depositions, expert reports, court transcripts, and proposed findings-of-facts cramming the file cabinets of the A.C.L.U.’s basement. She took home voluminous legal papers totaling 6,718 pages.

Eight years later, she has provided us with an unforgettable account of the Wilder behemoth. Significantly, her book, The Lost Children of Wilder, dissects not only the case itself, but also the lives of its plaintiffs, all of whom suffered indignities and injustices while mired in the bowels of New York City’s foster care system. The case discussion is dense and sometimes tedious, but Bernstein’s chronicles of Wilder’s key plaintiffs bring the case alive and humanize the suit’s faceless complexities.


The Wilder suit was filed in 1973 by Marcia Lowry, a young, idealistic Legal Aid attorney. Lowry’s case was revolutionary, as it called for an overhaul of New York City’s foster care system. For years, private, religious agenciespredominately Catholic and Jewishhad received public funding to house and care for the city’s foster children. This system, Wilder posited, was unacceptable because these agencies gave preferential treatment to their own, meaning Catholic and Jewish wards. Meanwhile, the city’s Protestant wardsmany of whom were blackwere rejected by the private agencies and instead wallowed in squalid and oppressive public shelters and state training schools. Glaring racial discrepancies crystallized the discrimination: though 52.7% of the city’s wards were black at the time, only about one quarter of both the Jewish and Catholic agencies’ children were black. Further, a current report determined that the private agencies were provided with significantly more public funds per child (as much as $14,000) than the public institutions. Bernstein contends that the city had delegated the public good wholesale to a collection of sectarian agencies with a license to discriminate.

Bernstein masterfully recounts the degree of audacity in Lowry’s litigation. Lowry sued nuns and rabbis. She even sued her former supervisor. Many defendants were Legal Aid board members. Protestant agencies with black clientele weren’t spared either, because, as Bernstein sees it, Lowry’s legal position was that any participant in such a system was aiding and abetting discrimination. Some defendantsthese were benevolent, dedicated child advocatesbristled at what they perceived as a brazen attempt to question their high moral principles. Lowry was accused of treachery and Communism, but she plowed ahead, determined to assist plaintiffs like the young woman from whom the case took its name, Shirley Wilder. Though other plaintiffs could arouse more pathos, Shirley was considered the key plaintiff because her story offered the best documented history of rejection by voluntary agencies. When not tracing the origins of the Wilder case, the book’s first section focuses on Shirley Wilder’s turbulent and traumatic first 13 years.

Shirley’s mother dies when she is four. She is raped at age nine. Her father has the courts remove her from his home. The story of Shirley’s childhood is indeed one of forced removal, as well as flight. Bernstein enumerates the public institutions at which young Shirley lives, as well as the frequently unstable relatives with whom she stays. Shirley is sodomized, condemned to solitary confinement and generally treated as a criminal. Her only means of escape is to run away. Repeatedly, she is rejected by private agencies. At 14, she gives birth to Lamont. Immediately, the city whisks him away. She visits him sporadically at first, but eventually her caseworkers can no longer track her down. Lamont is promptly fed to, as he later calls it, the system.

Lamont spends his first five years with a loving Latino couple. The couple separates, however, and Lamont’s foster mother can no longer make the financial commitment to care for him. Shirley’s parental rights have since been terminated, so Lamont is flown to Minnesota, where he lives with two different white foster families. His chronic misbehavior causes him to be sent back to New York. He spends time at countless public facilities, including one for the mentally ill. Despite the hardships, Lamont attempts to better his life. He joins an arts center in high school, and later he attempts to reach out to his father’s family by attending a family reunion in Memphis.

Much of Lamont’s story is told in his own articulate adult voice. The reader, appreciating how far the thoughtful, intelligent Lamont has come despite his difficult childhood, will sympathize with his troubling moments of young adulthood, such as when, at age 19, he finally meets his mother, only to have her flirt with him. Or when he toils long hours as a barber to help pay the bills for his young son. Or, most poignantly, when he struggles to care for a dying mother he hardly knew.

Bernstein’s style shifts fluidly from the literary to the journalistic. She describes Shirley’s insatiable desire for escape as the way a colt might shy from its own shadow or a bird take flight at a flicker in the underbrush. Yet her prose is also clear, sharp and sufficiently detached. She refers to herself only as a reporter, or someone. The breadth of her research is astounding; she addresses not only the case’s myriad details but also its obscure gossip. Who would have known, for example, that a key negotiator of the eventual Wilder settlement was a con artist pretending to be as a deputy mayor from Detroit with a law degree from Columbia?

In 1999, a judge approved a settlement in the Marisol case, which included many of the Wilder principles. (This child welfare reform lawsuit was filed as Marisol vs. Giuliani by Marcia Lowry in 1995.) Ironically, however, on the same day as the settlementand in the same courtroomBernstein notes ominously, a federal judge presided over a case in which the lead plaintiff was Lamont Wilder’s son. The battle, clearly, is far from won. Yet at least The Lost Children of Wilder has shed some much-needed light on the situation. Yes, the book is dense; Wilder was a complex case. Yet thanks to Bernstein’s focus on the children involved, the work is also admirably poignant and illuminating. Readers will not forget the young plaintiffs’ stories. Wilder, for this reason, will not be forgotten, either.

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