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.

Bernstein’s painstaking reconstruction of Lamont’s life, from court records and scattered files in government and private agencies and hundreds of hours of interviews with Lamont and the many people through whose hands he passed, is a triumph of diligence but also of understanding. We care about Lamont desperately even as we recognize why people keep washing their hands of him. His story is not, after all, an updated version of Oliver Twist—not only because his mother doesn’t turn out to have been a fine lady, but because he falls into the hands of loving and decent grown-ups.

But the nice people don’t help any; they abandon Lamont for perfectly understandable, thoroughly human reasons. The Lost Children of Wilder is not entirely a tale of mock benevolence, or even the decline of benevolence; it is also a tale of the insufficiency of benevolence. While we suffer for Shirley and Lamont, we can’t fail to recognize the magnitude of the problem they pose. Shirley has been thoroughly abused by life before she has any experience of foster care. Such was her downward momentum by the time she reached Hudson that you can’t be confident that any institution, Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant, could have acted as an effective brake.

What Bernstein leads us to feel, time and again, is a terrible permeability, in which the horrors of the street and the horrors of the foster care system flow back and forth, so that in the end the cure becomes almost indistinguishable from the disease that gave rise to it. It’s an experience we may recognize from reading about chaotic inner-city public schools. Schools or churches can counteract the effects of poverty and pathology when—as in many parochial schools and some model public schools—their culture is powerfully different from the culture in which the institutions are immersed. This is, according to the evidence of The Lost Children of Wilder, at least as great a rarity in foster care as it is in schools.

Lamont ultimately spends most of his childhood at the Astor Home for Children, a group home run by the Catholic Church principally for the benefit of white, Catholic children, and thus just the kind of place to which Judge Polier wanted to send Shirley but couldn’t. Yet Lamont hates Astor Home as passionately as his mother hated Hudson, and is thrown into solitary just as regularly.

Why do these institutions fail? Perhaps, in part, because we’re asking them to do what cannot be done—to make Shirley whole or to soothe the anger in Lamont that followed from his being torn from one home after another. But it’s also true, as Bernstein points out, that each of these institutions embodies, in decayed form, an archaic view of the nature of social reform. She observes, for example, that the Hudson House of Refuge for Women, the predecessor to Shirley’s own facility, was established in 1887 in order to deal with “fallen women,” not neglected children; the goal of the institution, according to the social reformer Josephine Shaw Lowell, who had lobbied for its creation, was “to reform this if possible, but if that cannot be done, at least to cut off the hereditary line of pauperism, crime and insanity, now transmitted mainly through them.”

The goal, in other words, was to protect us from them, rather than protect them from others. Of course the professed ideology was altogether different by the time Shirley arrived; but the place was still a prison, and it still viewed its charges as little reprobates. Bernstein also observes that our modern faith in the supreme value of the mother–child bond would have been considered preposterously wrong-headed by the philanthropists who founded the foster care institutions. Children were to be protected from their mothers, as well as from the ruinous atmosphere of the slums; it was a fortunate child who could be taken from his mother and transplanted to the bracing environment of the country. Astor Home was established in 1914 by the Astor family as a refuge for sickly and impoverished children; it was a great pile in Rhinebeck, New York, where, as Bernstein writes, little children “would pine, in splendor, for their mothers.”

This was what Marcia Lowry and Judge Polier wanted to get rid of—a system certain of its own benevolence, anchored in a discredited vision of poverty and child welfare, and dedicated to its self-preservation. It wasn’t at all clear what would arise in its stead, but both felt that virtually anything would be preferable; both put great store by the idea of public oversight and supervision. By the mid-Eighties, however, the case had dragged on for a decade with no resolution in sight. Lowry realized that she might well win and then see the case overturned on appeal. In 1984, the New York City corporation counsel, Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr., offered to negotiate a settlement.

Now the Sixties narrative arrives at its Eighties denouement; Lowry and the ACLU are asked to accept meliorism, compromise, progress without moral victories. They swallow hard, and agree. Lowry breaks the news to Judge Polier, who cries, like an angry sibyl, “There is no compromising with the First Amendment.” After having witnessed the cruelty and stupidity of the system from the bench for half a century, the judge cannot part with the idea of moral reckoning, no matter what the consequences. She has, Lowry thinks, earned her fury; but we are made to see how self-defeating unbridled moralism can be.

In 1987, after three years of acrimonious negotiation, the ACLU agreed to drop the suit, the city promised to scrap the old system of assigning children to agencies based on religion, and the agencies agreed to a system of monitoring that would measure their performance on a wide range of standards. But by that time, the suit had already outlived the problem it was designed to address. Just as shifting urban demographics made school-desegregation suits irrelevant, since so few white children remained in big-city school systems, so the dwindling numbers of white Catholic and Jewish children entering foster care made the old assignment system a non-issue. And once the crack epidemic began in the mid-Eighties, and abused or abandoned children flooded into the system in unprecedented numbers, the scramble for beds, and the struggle to keep children from falling through the cracks, swamped all other issues. The compromise to which Lowry and the ACLU agreed came too late to matter; the crisis in foster care was deeper in the decade after Wilder than in the decade before. Perhaps, though Bernstein doesn’t say so, the municipal officials and church leaders and old-line liberals were wrong to defend the system as it existed, but right in arguing that Wilder would never achieve the outcome the plaintiffs wanted.

Meanwhile, the lives of Lamont and Shirley followed a terrible logic. With nothing in the world to brake her fall, Shirley becomes a crack addict, contracts AIDS, and, at age forty, suffers a lonely and pitiful death. Lamont gets one last chance when, at age ten, he is taken in by yet another foster parent, a strict, grandmotherly black woman who lives in the country by a brook where Lamont loves to play. But Lamont proves difficult, and when he hits his foster mother’s daughter, she loads him into the car and dumps him at Astor Home’s reception desk. Lamont has now run out of chances; he will stay at Astor Home until he is twenty-one.

But Bernstein does not reduce her characters to ciphers in a policy debate, and the Lamont that emerges from foster care is not simply the sum of the social forces that have shaped him. Though he falls in with his father’s family, which seems to consist almost entirely of drug dealers and drug addicts, he refuses an offer to go into the family business. And when he fathers a child, he becomes desperate to keep the little boy out of foster care. He becomes a barber, barely eking out a living, trying to protect the little boy (who is not named) from the surrounding wreckage. Lamont is struggling to claim an individual destiny for himself and his child; the reader can’t help but be aware of how long the odds are.


Is there anything to be done? How can we alter the terrible dynamic in which poverty and pathology feed children into a foster care system which perpetuates rather than changes that pernicious culture? Can we make any progress at all without making inroads on inner-city pathology? Bernstein writes that Marcia Lowry believed that even if she couldn’t fix poverty, she could fix foster care; Bernstein, however, describes this faith as “a fiction.” It’s not clear how Bernstein thinks we should go about solving the problems of the inner city, or if she even believes that there is a self-perpetuating cycle of failure that needs to be directly addressed. She apparently feels that we’re now moving backward, for she describes the workfare program of New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani as “the new criminalization of poverty.”

At the same time, although Bernstein shares Lowry’s belief in the efficacy of lawsuits, and in the moral leverage they provide, she ultimately parts ways with Lowry on the subject. In 1995, Lowry filed another class-action suit, Marisol v. Giuliani, demanding that the court appoint an outside receiver to take over the city’s foster care system—an implicit acknowledgment of the failure of government oversight which was the real goal of Wilder. Three years later, Lowry settled Marisol as well, agreeing to bring in a panel of independent experts to evaluate the city’s reforms, and also agreeing to forego further class-action lawsuits. This last stipulation is too much for Bernstein, who accuses Lowry of “turning her back on litigation, deferring to a group of child welfare professionals answerable to no one and devoid of political power.” She ends by sounding as unyieldingly adversarial as Judge Polier.

Bernstein’s own faith in litigation is hard to fathom after we’ve seen how very little Wilder accomplished, and at what cost. But perhaps, like Judge Polier, she feels that nothing can be done in the absence of the kind of moral reckoning available in a court of law. Bernstein makes much of the analogy between Wilder and civil rights litigation, and it’s true that Brown v. Board of Education sent an unmistakable signal that racial segregation is morally unacceptable; but foster care, as we have seen, is not simply a matter of shaming the recalcitrant into recognizing an abiding principle. Reform requires the sense of urgency that comes only with moral recognition of the failure of a system. But then it also demands both consensus on a different policy and bureaucratic commitment to carrying out that policy, each of which is hard to achieve at the sharp edge of a lawsuit. Brown, to pursue the analogy, ended the evil of “separate but equal” schools, but did very little to raise educational attainment among black children. That requires a convergence of opinion on issues like basic skills, testing, teacher training, and so forth, followed by the political will to bring about change on a national scale.

As it happens, Bernstein was writing just as an alternative vision of reform, institutional and bureaucratic rather than legalistic, was taking shape. In 1996, in the aftermath of the killing of Elisa Izquierdo, a six-year-old girl whose precarious home situation had been known throughout the foster care system, Mayor Giuliani announced that he would reform child welfare as he had the Police Department. He seemed to be following the age-old pattern in foster care—appalling death of the innocent, outraged editorials, mayoral call to arms. Giuliani did not, however, content himself with the symbolic. He created a new Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), increased its budget despite the city’s fiscal crisis, and appointed as its first director Nicholas Scoppetta, a highly respected former investigator who had himself grown up in an orphanage. A little less than a year later, Scoppetta announced an ambitious reform program in which he vowed to hold the system accountable for achieving precisely the outcomes that litigants had been trying, and failing, to compel for a quarter of a century: protecting children from harm, moving them rapidly into permanent placement, and improving their treatment in group settings.

Accepting, if warily, both Scoppetta’s good faith and the mayor’s professions of commitment, foster care advocates concluded that the time had come for cooperation; thus Lowry agreed to settle Marisol. Bernstein, however, will have none of Scoppetta’s program. For her, Giuliani was the man who criminalized poverty and was thus a member of the class that had to be opposed; and Scoppetta, though perhaps well intentioned, was trying to peddle “old prescriptions” from which little could be expected without the pressure of litigation. She appears to side with critics who took Lowry to task for unilateral disarmament.

This past December—far too late, of course, for Bernstein to take account of it—the Marisol panel, under the supervision of the liberal Annie E. Casey Foundation, issued its final report to Judge Robert Ward. The panel concluded that the ACS had earned the right to be free of further judicial oversight; the agency, the authors wrote, “has engaged over the past several years in a sustained, intelligent effort to change a complicated and difficult system, presided over by a talented group of leaders that has remained remarkably stable over this period.” The panel gave the ACS credit for a fundamental shift in emphasis. When Giuliani created the agency, in the wake of Elisa Izquierdo’s death, he vowed to concentrate on protecting children from violent parents rather than on keeping families together. This sounded like, and probably was, a reflection not only of public outrage but also of Giuliani’s police approach to virtually all problems.

But Scoppetta, who bore the scars of his own childhood in foster care, took a more subtle approach, and steered ACS in just the direction most experts advocated. According to new principles that the agency promulgated, children would remain within the family if at all possible; and, if not, the family would be as fully engaged as possible in the child’s placement and would be expected to make plans for his or her return. The services of ACS would be “family-focused, culturally and linguistically complete, and accessible in the community.” And the entire system, in all its aspects, would be organized around the one goal which foster care experts consider paramount: moving children to a permanent home as rapidly as possible.

More important, according to the panel, the new emphasis had been incorporated into daily practice. The ACS reorganized care so that children placed in foster homes would remain as close as possible to their neighborhoods, thus ending the 150-year-old practice of shipping inner-city children to the supposedly wholesome environment of the Midwest or the Hudson River Valley. (Of course this raises the question whether some neighborhoods are, in fact, so toxic that a child would be better off elsewhere.)

The agency created a regular series of conferences to bring the child’s parents together with caseworkers, foster care agencies, and others involved with the child. It adopted a “common core” training program so that all employees would receive a grounding in basic skills; caseworkers now get ten weeks of training, split between the classroom and the field. A combination of a budget increase and savings allowed Scoppetta to hire more caseworkers and to pay them significantly better, thus reducing both caseloads and turnover. The agency developed a new system for evaluating foster care agencies, which the panel described as “far more sophisticated and comprehensive [than the former system], and far better aligned with its policy goals and with good child welfare practice.” However, the panel faulted ACS for not having sufficiently reorganized itself around the goal of permanency, and suggested that it needed to recognize that the entire family, and not just the child, must be the focus of care—that parents, for example, may need help with housing or drug treatment or child-rearing skills.

The panel distributed a questionnaire to the principal participants in the system and found that almost half of the lawyers and activists—the most skeptical of all groups—felt that foster care had improved over the previous three years, while three fifths expected it to improve over the next two. Advocates whom I spoke to said that the changes are too new to have significantly altered the experience of children already under the supervision of the ACS, but that children now coming into the system have a significantly better chance of being helped than they would have had five or ten years ago. Douglas Nelson, the president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the chairman of the panel, observes that more progress has been made in the last few years than in the fifteen years that followed the settlement of Wilder.

This brings us back to the issue of exactly how it is that entrenched systems can change. Bernstein quotes Judge Polier as telling Marcia Lowry that “she didn’t believe in sacrificing principle for what was politically possible.” It’s a good thing Polier lost that argument. Where is the heroism in defending an abstract principle that stands in the way of improving the lives of desperate people? What’s more, the history that Bernstein recounts—and the more recent history that she doesn’t recount—shows how specious is the moral distinction between “principle” and the “politically possible.”

For decades advocates had been passionately advancing the right principles, and indeed incorporating them into an endless stream of studies and reports without making any real headway. Then change became “politically possible” because a mayor committed himself to it and appointed a leader with the power and the ability to act. What makes the entire situation even more ironic is that the mayor in question is a harsh and unsympathetic politician who scorns the language of moral obligation in favor of talk about “personal responsibility.” His predecessor, the irreproachably liberal David Dinkins, used noble rhetoric and accomplished little; and Dinkins’s head of child-welfare services, Robert Little, the son of Malcolm X, delivered blistering speeches but was widely considered a disaster inside the foster care world. And yet we are quick to assume that public officials like Dinkins and Little speak “for” the poor, and those like Giuliani do not.

Scoppetta’s tenure at ACS—especially should Mayor Giuliani’s successor have the good sense to keep him on—may help to answer the question of what, exactly, can be accomplished without effectively addressing the underlying problems of poverty and family breakdown. Some of Giuliani’s policing methods were certainly open to criticism, but he showed that you can make a serious dent in crime without dealing with its root causes. Some schools, in New York and in cities throughout the country, have shown that children can succeed academically despite crushing disadvantage. Good institutions, and sound practices, can do much to mitigate the effects of poverty.

They cannot, of course, eliminate the stupendous socioeconomic gap between inner-city children and middle-class children. Even a fully reorganized ACS could hardly undo the harm done to Shirley in the first twelve years of her life. Nobody should have to grow up the way Shirley did; nobody should have to behave heroically merely in order to survive. The persistence of inner-city poverty, and above all of black poverty, is our national shame. Still, it’s naive to imagine that we’re going to seriously address the problem, much less solve it, any time soon; and it’s self-defeating to act as if we can do nothing until we’ve done everything.

This Issue

May 17, 2001