Without a doubt, the single most important figure in Nina Bernstein’s account of the New York State foster care system and the case of Shirley Wilder is Marcia Lowry, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union. Bernstein describes in her opening chapter of The Lost Children of Wilder how Lowry, only three months after the NYCLU had assigned her to “create a children’s rights project,” had, together with coworker Risa Dickstein, identified a suitable lead plaintiff in a planned class-action lawsuit against the State of New York on behalf of current and former foster children. That plaintiff, Shirley Wilder, provided a textbook case study of a badly flawed system that not only failed to provide adequate care for parentless children and children in seriously dysfunctional homes, but had actually caused physical and long-term emotional harm to many of those children. Lowry, along with Wilder, is the one constant throughout Bernstein’s book, and if any one individual deserves mention, it is her.
Another prominent figure in The Lost Children of Wilder is Sister Dorothy Gallant of New York’s Holy Cross campus who, according to Bernstein, “ministered to homeless women in city shelters, many of them drug addicts who had lost their children to foster care.” Wilder’s ordeal as a young child committed to substandard and sometimes violent – she was raped with a broomstick while incarcerated at the Training School for Girls and had been raped twice at the age of nine – institutions is, of course, the unifying theme throughout the book, it’s driver, so to speak. Physical brutality at the hands of other incarcerated girls, however, paled next to the long-term psychological trauma caused by the frequent periods of isolation to which Wilder and others were routinely subjected. By the time Sister Gallant encountered Shirley in the capacity of the latter’s new social worker, considerable emotional damage had been done. As Shirley’s guide during her early days at the Holy Cross facility, Sister Gallant demonstrated a notable interest in and compassion for the girls placed in her charge. It was the sister’s recommendation that Shirley be provided birth control measures (she had already given birth to her son, Lamont) – a decision that was demonstratively in the young girl’s interest:
“To Trexler, the nun’s acceptance of contraception in Shirley’s case only underlined that no one could fail to see the need. If she became pregnant at Holy Cross, she would have to leave.”
Bill and Nann Miller contributed in a positive way as responsible and loving foster parents who provided Shirley Wilder’s young son, Lamont, a stable and comfortable environment – while it lasted. More than foster parents, the Miller’s had hoped to adopt Lamont. There was, however, one obstacle: the Millers were white, and Lamont was black. As Bernstein describes it, the National Association of Black Social Workers was adamantly opposed to transracial adoptions, calling white adoptions of black children “cultural genocide,” and arguing, as Bernstein relates it, white parents “could never give their black children the racial pride and survival skills necessary to cope with a racist society.” A more serious problem, however, was in the depth of Lamont’s sense of loss, having been removed from New York (the Millers lived in Minneapolis) and from the only family he had known. Lamont wasn’t bonding with the Millers, and Bill Miller wasn’t bonding with Lamont the way Bill had hoped. Lamont’s behavior problem, despite being only five-years-old, proved too much for the Millers, and the planned adoption never occurred.
Unfortunately, the Millers, like the Wassermans, the next foster family to receive Lamont, represented only good intentions unfulfilled. One of the themes of Bernstein’s books is the failure of well-intentioned individuals to cope with the severity of the emotional problems the children manifested, which ultimately contributed to the larger problem, as each new stop for a child was just one more reminder of the impermanence of home and family.
Judge Justine Wise Polier was the scion of a prominent Jewish family and a progressive in the area of social reform. Bernstein points out Polier’s college-age mission of ferreting out by working undercover corruption and brutal working conditions at a New Jersey textile mill during the 1920s. Polier had dedicated her life to improving the conditions of the less-fortunate among us, especially children. After decades of doing good work on behalf of the disadvantaged, and having risen to the position of judge in the State of New York, Polier would find herself shackled by the archaic and incomprehensible laws pertaining to foster care and adoption. Children were routinely allowed to rot in an inadequate foster care system when many potential adoptive families were quietly awaiting an opportunity to provide these children permanent homes. That the case of Shirley Wilder should cross her desk illuminated vividly the injustice in the system. As Bernstein describes it, “. . .[On] December 22, 1972, all Polier had to offer Shirley Wilder was commitment to the state training school at Hudson, a harsh reformatory for delinquents.”
Wilder’s passage through Judge Polier’s court, however, provided insights into another individual worth mentioning: Carol Sherman, a Legal Aid lawyer who represented Shirley in court. Sherman’s efforts on Shirley’s behalf, discussed in Chapter One of The Lost Children of Wilder, presents a highly-dedicated and capable advocate on behalf of children caught up on the state’s foster care system, a system heavily weighted against African American children. Sherman’s report for Judge Polier on the sorry state of the state training school and her diligent efforts at helping Shirley were noteworthy both for the humanity involved and for the ultimate futility of the efforts.