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The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care

The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care by Nina Bernstein
22 reviews (2001) (496p)
National Book Award for Nonfiction Finalist

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Book Description
IIn 1973, a young ACLU attorney filed a controversial class-action lawsuit that challenged New York City's operation of its foster-care system. The plaintiff was an abused runaway named Shirley Wilder who had suffered from the system's inequities. Wilder, as the case came to be known, was waged for two and a half decades, becoming a battleground for the conflicts of race, religion, and politics that shape America's child-welfare system.

The Lost Children of Wilder gives us the galvanizing history of this landmark case and the personal story at its core. Nina Bernstein takes us behind the scenes of far-reaching legal and legislative battles, but she also traces the life of Shirley Wilder and her son, Lamont, born when Shirley was only fourteen and relinquished to the very system being challenged in her name. Bernstein's account of Shirley and Lamont's struggles captures the heartbreaking consequences of the child welfare system's best intentions and deepest flaws. In the tradition of There Are No Children Here, this is a major achievement of investigative journalism and a tour de force of social observation, a gripping book that will haunt every reader who cares about the needs of children. 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

Nina Bernstein Award Stats
Major Prize* Nominations 1  
Unique Books Nominated for a Major Prize* 1  
Pulitzer Prize Wins 0  
Pulitzer Prize Nominations 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Wins 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Nominations 0  
National Book Award Wins 0  
National Book Award Nominations 1 The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care ·  
Man Booker Prize Wins 0  
Man Booker Prize Nominations 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Wins 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Nominations 0  

*Major Prize = Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, and PEN/Faulkner Award


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