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Lost Children Of Wilder

March 29, 2001


'The Lost Children of Wilder': A Sad Cycle of Bounces in Foster Care


When I adopted my son, I turned to New York's public agencies. I was told that I would have to agree to be a foster parent first. I would have to take in an abused or neglected child for 18 months. At that time it would be determined if the rights of the birth parents should be terminated, and in turn whether I could adopt. If the child was returned to his parents, I would have to take another child and try again. I worried that this uncertain process pitted my longing to have a child against the attachments of parents constrained by presumptively temporary calamity or hardship. Since I was already 40, I resorted to a private agency instead. What a burdened system, I thought sadly at the time.

I didn't know the half of it.

"The Lost Children of Wilder" is a wrenching account of that foster care system's disasters, oversights and tragedies. Nina Bernstein, a reporter for The New York Times, has compiled a brilliant, moving chronicle of a bright little girl named Shirley Wilder and the dogged lawyer, Marcia Lowry, who tried to find her a home. Shirley was 4 when her mother died, 9 when she was first raped, 11 when the grandmother with whom she lived died. Sent to her neglectful father and abusive stepmother, she ran away repeatedly. It was her father who brought her to court asking that she be put away.

Ms. Wilder never had a permanent home after that. Despite her being feisty and smart, agencies rejected her in favor of children who represented the religious and racial profiles of "our own."

Repeatedly, efforts were made to place her in environments that would provide the stability with which the foster care system was charged, but she was repeatedly rejected as nonwhite or non-Catholic or non-Jewish. She was also caught in a system founded in the late 1800's upon the dominant belief that breaking up poor families was the most efficient way to prevent pauperism. Ms. Bernstein details the cyclical re-emergence of that driving rationale, including today's welfare debates.

In 1973, when Ms. Wilder was 13, Ms. Lowry brought suit against New York's foster care system alleging violations of equal protection and separation of church and state. The suit detailed inequalities wrought when private, publicly funded agencies -- fully 90 percent of all foster beds -- discriminated among the children they were willing to treat. A study at the time showed that all but 22 percent of the white children had been accepted by the treatment-rich voluntary agencies, which received as much as $24,000 a year in public funds for each child's care. But 73 percent of the minority children went to public shelters or to state training schools, with a median per capita cost of $10,000 and no treatment.

The lawsuit dragged on for 26 years until it was settled without significant legal resolution in 1999, its critics alleging that since by this time virtually all the children in foster care were black, discrimination among them could no longer be proved.

Meanwhile, Shirley was never placed permanently. She was put in institutions that were -- that are still -- effectively madhouses and prisons. She was raped, and raped again. She ran away, and ran away again. What is striking is that despite everything, she tried so hard to function within society's rules. Yet for all her efforts there was a terrible double bind in trying to conform in the dysfunctional institutions among which she was shunted. As Ms. Bernstein underscores, children like Shirley, who resist their abusers, "are considered more deviant if they're strong enough not to blame themselves for the abuse they've suffered; they're considered sicker if they rebel, rather than adjust to being victims."

Thus it was that at 13, Shirley was effectively homeless, although still a ward of the state. At 14, she was pregnant. Having no resources, she put her newborn son, named Lamont, into the same foster care system that had so disserved her, with official reassurance that he would be adopted soon. And thus began the saga of the next generation. The infant was placed with a loving family, but just before the adoption was to have become final, the couple separated. Lamont was then 4. The state took him back and he was shuttled from place to place until he came of age.

By age 20, Mr. Wilder was scraping by without a high school diploma, in and out of group homes. At a time when policy experts were insisting that recipients of public benefits be lectured about the virtues of abstinence but not birth control, his girlfriend, Lakisha Reynolds, as young and destitute as he, gave birth to a little boy. And while Jason Turner, then New York City's welfare commissioner, was advocating the provoking of a personal crisis in individuals' lives to stimulate self-reliance, Ms. Reynolds and her child were facing a 30- to 40-day waiting period for food stamps.

In 1999, Ms. Wilder died of AIDS at 39. The class action suit that bore her name was settled five days later. Ms. Bernstein concludes: "With the kind of cruel irony that epitomizes this sad saga, in the same federal courthouse, on the same day, in a class action suit called Lakisha Reynolds v. Giuliani, a different judge was determining that the tough new welfare practices of the city's Human Resources Administration had endangered needy children, and specifically a 3-year-old named Wilder. Even the Legal Aid attorneys who had chosen his mother as their lead plaintiff had no idea that he was Shirley Wilder's grandson."

In documenting Ms. Wilder's short, unhappy life, Ms. Bernstein has conjured a powerful combination of "Bleak House," "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the Marquis de Sade. It is a folly unfurling into the future, damning the innocent and damning us all.

Patricia J. Williams is the author of "Seeing a Colorblind Future."

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