In The Lost Children of “Wilder,” journalist Nina Bernstein has organized a decade’s worth of research on New York City’s foster care system into an exhaustive, fascinating account of both a landmark class-action suit and a mother and son’s personal journey through this system. Often compared to the fictitious Jarndyce v. Jarndyce case in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-1853), which lingered in the courts so long that no one could remember what it was about, theWilder case was finally settled out of court after fifteen years of motions, depositions, hearings, and mountains of paperwork. The class-action suit, with then fourteen-year-old Shirley Wilder as the plaintiff representing New York City’s foster children, was filed by Marcia Lowry for the New York State Civil Liberties Union to challenge the discriminatory practices of New York City’s foster care system. The case, although fascinating, pales in comparison to the story of the Wilders’s harrowing experience within this destructive system.
By 1973, when Marcia Lowry filed the lawsuit, New York City had a long history of contracting out most of its foster care services to private religious organizations, which gave preference to children of their own religious affiliation. In essence, this meant that white Catholic and Jewish children received the best care available, and black Protestant children received what remained. Therefore, the state was in effect subsidizing a system that discriminated against black children, providing them with care inferior to that received by white children. In fact, this discrimination was so blatant at the New York Foundling Home as late as the 1960’s that “. . . whenever there was some doubt about the racial origins of one of the babies in the institution’s nursery, nuns would carry the child over to the Museum of Natural History to be examined and classified by its resident anthropologist. Those determined to have Negro blood were less likely to be adopted, of course, and some waited out their babyhood in an institutional nursery.”
Lowry’s choice for the lawsuit’s plaintiff, Shirley Wilder, was born in 1959 to Helen Wilder and Jay All, whose unstable relationship was characterized by excessive drinking and violence. Helen died of tuberculosis before Shirley’s fifth birthday, and Jay’s ailing, sixty-five-year-old mother took in the girl. Shirley was well aware of the precariousness of her position, and by the age of eight she was referred to a psychiatrist for behavioral problems, which were attributed to fear of her grandmother’s death. This fear was realized when Shirley was eleven and she was sent to live with her father and stepmother, who clearly wanted nothing to do with her. Shirley ran away often to escape her stepmother’s beatings, and her father finally turned her over to the court. A judge and psychiatrist determined that she needed residential treatment to deal with her feelings of abandonment, but for the next ten months she was shuttled between relatives, shelters, and juvenile detention centers, while caseworkers searched for an institution that would accept her.
Although guilty of nothing more than running away from an abusive situation, Shirley was finally sent to the punitive and oppressive Training School for Girls at Hudson, New York, because it was the only place to accept her. There she was initiated into “the racket,” a thriving lesbian subculture at the school, by being raped with a broomstick. When Shirley fought back she was placed in solitary confinement, which so horrified her that she ran away several times. Rather than being regarded as a reasonable response to her situation, the authorities attributed her escape attempts to mental instability, going so far as to label her schizophrenic. “In the logic of a system more comfortable with psychological interpretation than with its own realities, Shirley’s experiences with the racket came...
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