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The Lost Children of Wilder : The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care Hardcover – February 13, 2001


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Product Details

  • Series: Age of Unreason
  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1 edition (February 13, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067943979X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679439790
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 6.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #508,938 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

At age 12, Shirley Wilder ran away from an abusive home and landed in New York City's foster-care system. By age 13, she was named the plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that challenged the city's 150-year-old system as unconstitutional. At 14, Shirley gave birth to a son, Lamont, who was soon swept up in the same system. This absorbing account by New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein follows the threads of the tragic lives of Shirley and Lamont Wilder and the lawsuit that bears their name. In the process it illuminates the city's--and the nation's--dysfunctional social welfare system and its impact on the children it purportedly helps.

The Wilder lawsuit was filed in 1973 by a passionate young lawyer who stuck by it through 26 years of litigation, without the case ever being fully resolved. The accusation: that New York City's system violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments for giving private religious agencies control of publicly financed foster-care beds. These mostly Catholic and Jewish agencies gave preference to white Catholic and Jewish children, while the growing numbers of black and Protestant children were sent to inappropriate institutions that left them with more problems than they had when they came. Such was the fate of Shirley, who, for lack of anywhere else to go, was placed in Hudson, a state reformatory for delinquents with no treatment services for abandoned or abused children. Hudson "looked like a camp from the outside and was unmistakably a prison within." There was rampant violence and sexual abuse, and girls were regularly punished by being put in "the hole," a 5-by-8-foot cell with no windows, furniture, or heat, which Shirley would later testify was like "Winter. Winter--all year round." But a case that named state and city officials, 77 voluntary agencies and their directors, and 84 individual defendants including nuns, rabbis, and clergymen, and that threatened to pit blacks and Jews against each other, was a case destined to enter a legal wilderness of avoidance and delay.

Shirley and Lamont's unforgettable stories reveal the deep fault lines in a system that often does more harm than good. While reforms come and go with little success, Bernstein makes clear that the child welfare system will never really change until there is a coming to terms with the system's place as "a political battleground for abiding national conflicts over race, religion, gender and inequality" and the "unacknowledged contradictions between policies that punish the 'undeserving poor' and pledge to help all needy children." --Lesley Reed

From Publishers Weekly

In this first-rate investigation, New York Times reporter Bernstein explores the genesis and aftermath of the landmark 1973 legal case filed by young ACLU attorney Marcia Lowry against the New York State foster-care system. Known as Wilder for its 14-year-old African-American plaintiff, Shirley "Pinky" Wilder, the suit claimed Jewish and Catholic child welfare services had a lock on foster care funding and placements. Like Susan Sheehan in Life for Me Ain't Been No Crystal Stair, Bernstein illuminates broader social issues through the story of Shirley; Lamont, the son she bore at 14; and Lamont's young sonDall graduates of New York's hellish child welfare system. The tale is gut-wrenchingly DickensianDall the more so because, as Bernstein shows, the well-meaning 19th-century Jewish and Catholic philanthropists, clerics and parents who founded and expanded the child welfare system in New York ultimately deprived huge numbers of children of their legal and human rights as the demographics of New York changed. It took 25 years and many more lawsuits before the reforms mandated by Wilder began to be realized. In the interim, Lamont endured the same excruciating experiences his mother had suffered, including physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, witnessing the deaths of other children in foster care and losing his own child to the foster care system. A crack addict, Shirley died of AIDS at 40. Despite these horrors, the book ends with the hopeful postscript that Lamont's son currently lives with his mother, Kisha, and visits his now self-supporting father on weekends. Ten years in the making, this viscerally powerful history of institutionalized child abuse and the criminalization of poverty, of civil rights and social change, is compelling and essential reading. Agent, Gloria Loomis. (Feb. 28) Forecast: Like Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities, this book has the potential to jumpstart a national conversation about the failings of our social safety net for impoverished children. If it garners the review attention it deserves, it will find a solid audience among readers of Kozol's and Sheehan's books.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

Bernstein not only has amassed an incredible amount of detail to flesh out this story.
Larry Hayes
If you think you know how it all "goes down" for youth in these circumstances- read this book.
slowdownmama
It should be required reading for anyone who works with kids, especially in a legal context.
Yvonne Brown

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 11, 2001
Format: Hardcover
The Lost Children of Wilder is a book that is long overdue. Bernstein captures the insidious machinations of the NYC foster care system that purports to care for the well-being of all its homeless, indigent, and too often parentless children, irrespective of their race, creed or religion. I know of the systematic abuse of the NYC foster care system because I was number 1811513 who was serviced out of the Brooklyn Bureau of Social service and Children's Aid Society at 285 Schermerhorn Street. Bernstein has accomplished a herculean task by lifting an airtight lid on an epic silence to speak truth for the many children, like myself, who at a time in our lives were both invisible and voiceless. Rev. Irene Monroe Harvard Divinity School.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 13, 2002
Format: Paperback
I recently read this book. I have been a foster care case worker in New York City for four years and I iddentified with both sides of the Wilder case. Shirley adn her son, as well as millions of other children should have been given more than they were, they were forgotten and basically 'thrown away' by the foster care system. BUT, on the other hand, the agencies, the good agencies are only given SO much, and more agencies and services MUST be created, not should be, to beter service the children and their families. This is an excellent book, very down to earth, yet detailed. I highly recommend it.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 8, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Nina Bernstein's compelling account of the generations of children trapped in the child welfare system kept me up late turning pages...and gave me nightmares of the thousands and thousands of children who are still churning through an overtaxed foster care system that our society doesn't seem to care about. Still almost every week there's another horror story of an abused or neglected kid that fell through the cracks of the "system."
This is an absolutely amazing, and realistic account, of what long-term public interest litigation is like. The world needs more people like Marcia Robinson Lowry to fight on behalf of kids, and more journalists like Nina Bernstein, willing to put under bright light the shortcomings that our local governments would rather have swept under the rug.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By "husband3" on July 25, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Even though I have had no personal contact with the foster care system, I found the book fascinating as it concurrently details the trial against the system and the private trials of the Wilder family. While reading the book my heart went out not only to the Wilders in the story but the countless, nameless children that are wrapped in a system that is inadequate at best, and often very dangerous, both physically and emotionally. What struck me particularly hard throughout the book, is the reality that there are so many children that have nowhere to turn. We as a society need to find better ways to help these children, who through no fault of their own are so helpless. In order to change the system it is imperitive that we understand the problem, and the book does a wonderful job of describing the circumstances children in our foster care system face every day. I believe that religion should be a choice whenever possible, so that the child maintains some contact with a lifestyle familiar to him/her, but I also believe that communities that have a higher proportion of foster care children should be assisted to develop quality programs as well.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Mary G. Longorio VINE VOICE on May 24, 2001
Format: Hardcover
In 1973 the New York ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of 13 year old Shirley Wilder. Young, unable to cope with an abusive home, Shirley is in the foster care system and in danger of getting lost. At age 14 she gives birth to a son, Lamont, and is forced to turn him over to the same system that has failed her so miserably. What follows is a spellbinding (though long winded)account of the suit and the human faces behind it. Shirley never raises her son, as she had hoped. Lamont is sent spinning through foster care. Seemigly safe with his first family, his life is soon to be upended by good intentioned, badly informed people. This is a heartwrenching story of the cost in human terms of our country's inability to care for its children. I think I was most astonished by the fact that these things happen in this day and age, how unwilling and unable the system is to care and protect the most vunerable. There are no winners, just heartbreak and regret. The lawsuit also takes on a life of its own, bogged down in incredible red tape, appeals, and legalese. The suit's final conclusion is an afterthought... If it makes you frustrated as on onlooker,you can imagine it must be a living hell to depend upon this system and try to navigate it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By June C. Erlick on May 29, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This well-written epic study of New York's foster care system reads like a novel. Indeed, the fascinating details about three generations of foster children kept me reading and reading; the book is a cliff-hanger in a way non-fiction seldom is. Shirley and Lamont's compelling stories not only reveal little-known aspects of welfare history, but provide a window of what the sad future may look like if President Bush succeeds with his faith-based welfare initiatives.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Yvonne Brown on May 15, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is an incredible book. Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, it seamlessly weaves the story of a family trapped in New York City's foster care system, the history of foster care in New York, and the struggle of a small group of dedicated lawyers who wanted to make a difference. It should be required reading for anyone who works with kids, especially in a legal context. Bernstein provides an objective but devastating critique of the City's failed efforts to help the neediest children in New York, as well as a moving story about the people behind the statistics. I've recommended it to many friends.
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