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

by Nina BernsteinVintage Books; $15.00.



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Nina Bernstein’s The Lost Children of Wilder is a rich history of New York's foster care system. It weaves the story of Shirley Wilder, a foster care child and mother of a foster care son at 14, over 25 years of various federal lawsuits and other litigation brought on her behalf.

If there is a heroine in this plot—other than Shirley, for surviving—it is Marcia Robinson Lowry, the young legal aid attorney who, in 1973, brought suit against various New York State and City officials and virtually every private child welfare agency in New York City.

This case and its progeny still reverberate through America's systems of public and private foster care. (Only this year, New Jersey added funding to its child welfare budget in response to a Wilder-like lawsuit.) The books ends with Marcia Lowry before a judge settling the final Wilder case in 1999, 26 years after first bringing the lawsuit. Weeks before, Lowry had visited Shirley Wilder in a hospice just before she died. In the same courthouse on the same day, another lawsuit was begun—this time the defendant was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani—on behalf of a three-year-old boy, the grandson of Shirley Wilder.

America's system of adoption and foster care reflects our unique mix of the private and the public. Nina Bernstein's story of how this mix failed Shirley Wilder is a must-read for all of us with a stake in improving the lives of children.

Reviewed by Gerry Goodrich, an attorney and adoptive father in New York City.


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