Bleak House

Foster care is one of those social institutions that never seem to hold public attention for long. We hear a lot about the schools, because our own children attend them. And we hear a lot about the welfare system and the criminal justice system and the drug treatment system, because welfare and crime and drugs take a toll on ordinary citizens, who thus have a stake in successful reform. Foster care might as well take place in another country. The children in the system, at least in places like New York City, are almost entirely poor and black or Hispanic, and their suffering poses no threat to the white middle class. Most of us would be hard-pressed to explain what “the system” consists of, beyond the expression “foster parents.” Every few years, a small child supposedly under the watchful eye of the city is killed in an unspeakable fashion, and we peer into the depths of something awful and apparently irremediable. And then we move on.

The truth is, as Nina Bernstein explains in The Lost Children of Wilder, only a few children die in the custody either of the city or of the private agencies with which it works, though these rare events govern the public’s perception, such as it is, of the system. On the other hand, thousands of children vanish into foster care as if into a vast, if negligent, penal institution; for those children, the goal of “permanent placement,” either with their biological family or a foster family, is a mirage, sometimes looming right up in front of them, and then receding to a hopeless distance. The Lost Children of Wilder is an account of these children, and it is a work of such intense empathy that at times it is almost unbearable to read. The world Bernstein describes is, like Dante’s Hell, immense, endlessly ramified, and invisible to those who dwell above it. And she might say of her world what Dante writes of his: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” And yet, as we shall see, the situation is not quite as irremediable as she suggests.

Wilder is the name both of a family enmeshed in the coils of the foster care system and of a lawsuit filed against that system. Shirley Wilder, when we meet her in 1972, is a thirteen-year-old black girl who has been brought before the Manhattan Family Court for foster care placement. Most of the terrible things that can happen to children growing up in the ghetto have already happened to her. At age eight or nine she was raped by a cousin in a Harlem project and perhaps by other boys at other times. Her mother died when she was four, and when she was eleven her grandmother, with whom she had gone to live. She had then been taken in by her father, who was usually drunk, and her stepmother, who appeared to fear and despise her. Leaving her father, she moved into the …

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