City Lit: Family Ties

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New York City’s child welfare system is charged with protecting children from abuse and neglect, a complex mandate under any circumstances. The very people making these decisions-caseworkers, judges, police officers–are constrained by legal, political and religious forces that often have nothing to do with a particular child’s well-being.

Understanding child welfare is no easy task. Given the complexity of the system, its ways are difficult to comprehend even for experts, let alone for people on the outside. More than other public bureaucracies, child welfare needs a translator–somebody who gets the political and the personal side of this vital public service. Nina Bernstein does a thorough and meaningful job of it.

Bernstein, a longtime local reporter at the New York Times and Newsday before that, has published an ambitious child welfare history, The Lost Children of Wilder. She is a rarity among reporters, having never abandoned the “dead baby beat,” as print journalists refer to it. Child welfare is a topic covered by cub reporters on their way to bigger and better things. Bernstein has stayed with it by her own choice.

But it’s not just that she has continued to report on child welfare. To someone who has followed her work closely over the years, it’s also clear that she is apt to cross the line between reporter and advocate. Her bias is clearly toward the children and families caught up in the system, and against the system itself. In some instances, this slant may even distort her coverage, but in this book, which follows a complicated story over three decades, her strong point of view is a major asset. Bernstein’s obvious empathy with her subjects makes for clear analysis of knotty situations and a much more engaging read than you could get from a reporter with more distance from the topic.

The book is about the Wilder class-action lawsuit, which challenged the structure and administration of New York City’s child welfare system, and about the corresponding story of lead plaintiff Shirley Wilder and her son Lamont. The Wilder lawsuit, as originally filed in 1973, alleged that the city’s child welfare system was unconstitutional because it shut the door on services to black children, who had become the majority of kids in the system. Catholic and Jewish agencies who contracted with the city to provide foster care services would deny placements to Protestant children, who were mostly black, in favor of children of their own faith. As Bernstein writes, “The structure [of the system] itself resulted in a child-care system permeated by racial and religious discrimination.”

The book runs along two threads: One follows the structure and politics of the institution of foster care, and the other tracks the ways those forces play out in the lives of real people. Bernstein gives both equal weight. By skillfully interweaving the policy and the personal, she illuminates the incredible complexities and internal contradictions of the process by which government intervenes in how parents raise their children.

Thirteen years old at the time the lawsuit was filed in her name, Shirley Wilder went from foster care to juvenile detention after 12 different foster care agencies refused to take her on as a client. She had severe emotional problems and had run away from both her family and from placements several times. Such institutionalization was clearly wrong and even destructive for her, but the judge overseeing her case felt there was no other choice; before Wilder was finally settled, the city’s foster care agencies had the right to reject the girl.

Shirley Wilder struggled for the rest of her life with these experiences. Less than two years after the lawsuit was filed, she handed over custody of her son, Lamont, to the same system that had done her so much damage. The lawsuit in her name took an equally twisted journey through the courts, so confusing and contradictory it practically defies description. The final settlement, after 26 years in the courts, put in place new rules that aimed to put each child in the most appropriate available foster care placement, and gave the city’s child welfare agency more authority to oversee its contract foster care agencies.

The story of Wilder, the lawsuit, was waiting to be told. Wilder’s impact on the city’s child welfare system was unprecedented not just because it completely changed the method by which children are placed with foster care agencies, but because it also shifted the balance of power from the contract agencies to the city. Unfortunately, most people who work in child welfare or other social services these days know little about the case, or even of its existence.

The story of Shirley and Lamont Wilder, on the other hand, could easily have escaped telling. Bernstein’s effort to find the Wilders and get to know them ties the whole story together and makes it compelling even for those without a taste for obscure policy discussions or a familiarity with the names of all those characters who still haunt city policy. While it may have taken longer than Bernstein might have expected to finish it, the book is actually quite timely, coming near the end of a mayoral administration which oversaw an important round of shifts in child welfare policy.

Through its dual prism of the Wilder suit and the Wilder family’s experiences, the book catalogues a good number of the child welfare system’s many faults: a bureaucratic fear and a lack of decisiveness that leaves kids and the adults who love them in limbo; the rigidities of a bureaucracy that overwhelm and overpower the attempts of many people who work in it and genuinely want to help; and child welfare policies that careen from one extreme to another, implemented by well-meaning administrators and providers, which at times defeat the best efforts of people like Lamont Wilder to live responsible lives.

Bernstein also documents the substantial shortcomings of litigation as a tool to address social wrongs, and helps us see both how much and how little has changed for the system–and for the Wilders in particular.

Suri Duitch is a public policy writer and researcher.

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