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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 chaotic and filthy apartments of various relatives. She had terrible fears and nightmares, and perhaps hallucinations. She had been having unprotected sex for some time. But Shirley hadn’t committed a crime; she is, in Family Court parlance, a “person in need of supervision.” What she needs, in fact, is more than one can expect any single institution to give—sustained love, patience, firm guidance, an education.

In Bernstein’s story Shirley appears before Judge Justine Wise Polier, a crusading reformer and the descendant of a family of crusading reformers. Polier wants to assign Shirley to a place that will take decent care of her, but none of those places will accept an unruly thirteen-year-old black girl. And so, with no better alternative, she assigns Shirley to the State Training School for Girls in Hudson, a grim “facility” north of Poughkeepsie where, Shirley rapidly discovers, the girls are treated like juvenile delinquents. Inmates who violate the innumerable picayune rules are punished with solitary confinement. And, as in a prison, the inmates are left alone to enforce their own code through a surrogate extended family system sealed with sexual alliances and known as “the racket.”

Soon after arriving, Shirley is attacked by a group of girls intent on rape. When she fights back, she’s thrown into “the hole.” Shirley runs away, is captured, and thrown back into solitary for three days. Then she is transferred to the “Behavior Modification Unit,” intended as a modern and humane alternative to the old punitive regime. In fact, Shirley later tells Bernstein, “The counselors would hit you like you were a man. We had to mop the corridors and the bathroom on hands and knees with a rag. We was nobodies.” One of the “housemothers” concedes that very few children have been successfully “modified.”

While Shirley was descending into the maelstrom, Marcia Lowry, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, was looking for a lead plaintiff for a class-action suit against New York’s foster care system. Like Judge Polier, Lowry found it intolerable that troubled children like Shirley were being consigned to the worst institutions in the system. The foster care system, like hospitals and other forms of social service, had developed in the late nineteenth century as a network of private, voluntary institutions, most of them sectarian. The Catholics, the Protestants, and the Jews each cared for their own kind, though their funding came increasingly from the government of New York City.

But by the time Shirley came along, most children needing care, and certainly the most desperate, were black; the Catholic and Jewish “voluntaries” took only a few of these children, who were almost all Protestant, while the Protestant agencies were overwhelmed by the numbers. Children like Shirley were thus shunted to dismal reformatories like the one in Hudson. For all the surface benevolence of the system, it was being run like Southern schools in the days before desegregation—racially separate and not even remotely equal. Lowry brought a suit under the “establishment clause” of the Constitution, claiming that the city was unconstitutionally assigning children to institutions according to religion. Wilder, as the suit was called, asked the court to stop public funds from going to voluntary agencies practicing religious discrimination, and to strike down the system of assignment by faith.

But Lowry’s objective was never simply to end the system of religious discrimination, or even to “desegregate” foster care. The ultimate goal, Bernstein writes, was “the wholesale replacement of a set of political, religious and social arrangements that had been in place for a hundred years.” These arrangements were the result of a historical anomaly: the city was paying places like Hudson to care for children, but Hudson was still free to treat teenage runaways like felons, as it had generations before, when foster care was a wholly private affair. Both Lowry and Polier believed that the real problem was that the private organizations were accountable not to the public but to boards of trustees or religious officials. Lowry and Polier were willing to see the private agencies go out of business if that was what it took to bring about public oversight of the system.

The explosive reaction Wilder provoked inside the world of foster care offers the equivalent of comic relief in this otherwise unremittingly grim tale. Lowry and the ACLU were denounced in churches, synagogues, boardrooms, and courtrooms. As Bernstein writes, “People who saw themselves as good, generous, and dedicated to the unfortunate felt as though Lowry had publicly proclaimed them the venal Bull Connors of the child welfare system.” Many of them, she points out, had absolutely no idea what went on inside the gates of these splendidly named institutions. Wilder turned into one of those melodramatic tableaux of the late Sixties and early Seventies in which the unappeasable militants of the new left turned on their elders, the old-line liberals, and trampled their fine credentials and bona fides into the dust. Marcia Lowry was, as Bernstein describes her, a Russian Jewish socialist working-class troublemaker, equally happy comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Her adversaries were the great and the good of private and sectarian philanthropy—the Catholic hierarchy, the WASPs, the German Jews. For them, Wilder was an act of betrayal and Lowry a fallen angel. Both sides had all the moral assurance they needed to hold out against each other forever—which they virtually did.

As the trial inched forward, Shirley’s life went spinning down a funnel. At age fourteen, she became pregnant. There was no question of her taking care of the baby, and no one in her family was equipped to do so either. And so, with a sickening inevitability, her son, Lamont, became a second-generation foster child. Lamont’s descent through the inferno is the emotional core of Bernstein’s book, while also giving the reader a wider sense of how the foster care system works. The world of child welfare includes children who live at home but are considered at risk of abuse or neglect and thus receive visits from a caseworker, children who have been placed with a foster family, whether relatives or strangers, and a smaller number of children in “congregate care” settings, typically run by private agencies.

Lamont, as an infant, was an ideal candidate for family placement. And in fact his story begins hopefully. He is taken in by foster parents, Alicia and Frantz Fils-Aime, who hope to adopt him. While it later appears that Frantz may have sexually molested the little boy, Alicia loves him unconditionally, and treats him as the second of her two sons. But Lamont’s life turns out to be a dark fairy tale with no moral. Alicia and Frantz separate, and Alicia must go to work, leaving Lamont with friends. Just at the moment when Alicia’s life is disintegrating, Lamont’s foster care agency insists that she decide whether to adopt the boy or give him up. Trying to act in the boy’s interest, she painfully surrenders him to the agency just shy of his fifth birthday.

Lamont still has appeal to potential adoptive parents, and he troops off to his next family, a white couple in Minnesota, with a little album of family pictures under his arm. He already bears up under his burden of grief with the stoicism of a little boy who has learned to expect little from life. At the same time, his fear, confusion, and anger deepen; at school, he somehow gets hold of a knife and uses it to slash the tires of cars and bicycles. Lamont, age five, has become an active agent of his own failure. First one family then another give up on him. The album disappears; and so does the sunny little boy in the pictures. A diagnosis follows Lamont around like a trail of clattering tin cans: schizophrenic, fire-setter, prone to violence. This tiny boy frightens people; no foster family will have him now.

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