Early in 1990, researching an article for Newsday on New York City foster care, I spent a morning with a stack of documents in a longstanding class action lawsuit known as Wilder. In 1973, the lawsuit, citing the First Amendment’s separation of church and state and the FourteenthAmendment’s guarantee of equal protection, challenged New York City’s 150-year-old foster care system for giving private, mostly religious agencies control of publicly financed foster care beds. The dominant Catholic and Jewish charities were by law allowed to give preference to their own kind. Black, Protestant children—like the named plaintiff, Shirley Wilder—had to wait or do without. The system did poorly by all children, the suit charged, because it placed them according to creed and convenience, not according to their needs.
In the marble and mahogany splendor of Manhattan’s federal courthouse in the 1990’s, lawyers often likened the Wilder case to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the suit in Dickens’ “Bleak House,” that dragged on so long people forgot what it meant. Wilder’s course paralleled a national trajectory from great optimism to great skepticism about the possibility of righting social wrongs through the courts. The Wilder case engaged the passions of three generations of social reformers even as it fell short of helping three generations of children in foster care.
Halfway through the legal papers, I found a fact that haunted me: In 1974 Shirley Wilder, then 14, had given birth to a son and placed him in foster care. I wanted to know what had happened to that baby.
As a reporter for newspapers in Des Moines, Milwaukee and New York City, I had written about foster care for about as long as Wilder had been litigated, with increasing frustration. The problems seemed to be redefined by reform movements and newspaper exposés, not remedied. Cases we highlighted were by definition aberrations, like child abuse deaths, or court battles between two sets of parents for one child. Larger debates were typically framed in false dichotomies—say, child protection versus family preservation. Regardless of shifts of philosophy, I knew the same systems erred in all directions, leaving children in abusive situations—in their own homes, in foster homes, or institutions—while snatching children from loving families that needed help.
I wanted to dig deeper, and I was convinced that the way to do it was through the story of Shirley Wilder’s son, Lamont—a story unfolding in secret while the lawsuit, settled in the 1980’s through unfulfilled promises of change, was waged in court and at city hall. When I found Lamont, he was aging out of the system he had entered as a newborn. Partly because reformers had been pushing adoptions in the late 1970’s—as they are again today—this bright, outgoing black child had been abruptly removed at age five from his first foster mother and had been sent to Minnesota to be adopted by a white couple. They had changed their minds within a year, as did a second white family. Not yet seven, he had been labeled unadoptable and shipped back to New York to spend the balance of his childhood in institutions.
My two-part series on the case, which ran in New York Newsday in July 1993, won the Mike Berger Award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. But I felt I had only peeled back a few layers in a story rich in continuing human drama and history that revealed the racial, religious and political fault lines of America’s child welfare system. A 1994 Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship and then a book contract allowed me to continue my research until 1995, when New York Newsday was shut down.
Within weeks of joining The New York Times, I was drafted to lead an investigation into the case of six-year-old Elisa Izquierdo, a child beaten to death by her mother while under the system’s protection. Like most reporters trying to gather the facts about such a case, we were faced with state confidentiality laws that had been designed to shield troubled children and families, but were used by child welfare officials instead to hide the system from public accountability. Police and prosecutors typically became primary sources in these situations, which reinforces a tendency to recount the events in terms of individual blame and child martyrdom.
In Elisa’s case, child welfare sources old and new helped provide a deeper understanding of how the system had failed her. New York has among the strongest child welfare laws in the country, including an around-the-clock system for receiving reports of abuse or neglect, investigations required to begin within 24 hours, and detailed procedures for taking children into protective custody. But suspicions reported by school officials, a doctor, and a private social service agency—some suggesting Elisa was a disturbed child in need of mental health services—were lost or poorly investigated by overburdened caseworkers feeling new pressures to close cases.
Colleagues and I won a George Polk award for the coverage. And confidentiality laws were significantly modified as a result of the case’s coverage, and the mayor appointed a new commissioner to overhaul the child welfare agency. But I felt no matter how nuanced we tried to be in our front-page articles, we had reinforced a “master narrative” that once again distorted public perception. This powerful story line suggests that the only real danger to a child is an abusive parent, and the key systemic mistake is leaving children in parental custody. So in reaction to the Izquierdo scandal, in the name of safety, more children would be taken from their parents into a foster care system in disarray, often with damaging, even fatal, consequences. Furthermore, the case played into the demonization of poor mothers, then reaching a crescendo with the federal welfare overhaul. By this point I was acutely aware of the contradictions between policies that punished “the undeserving poor” and pledges to help all needy children.
The history of American child welfare is littered with programs once hailed as reforms and later decried as harmful or ineffective, only to reemerge in the guise of new solutions to past failures. Why do these problems seem so intractable?
Historical amnesia has shielded us from a full understanding of our child welfare dilemma. For three generations, “child welfare” has been a category that covered child abuse, child neglect, foster care and adoption, but not “welfare,” or Aid to Families with Dependent Children. In the media and public policy presentations, deviant parents and unlucky children from families of all income groups comprise the universe of child welfare, while “welfare” was a program for poor folks. This division tends to downplay the reality that children in foster care and at risk of foster care are overwhelmingly the children of the poor.
During long periods of American history, the relationship between poverty and family break-up was unambiguous; with no public relief, parents too poor to support their children had to put them into orphanages or up for indenture or adoption. The old and familiar conviction underlying such policies, that parents who cannot rear their children without public aid are almost by definition unfit to bring up the next generation, still holds sway in this age of welfare reform.
But the effort to sever the destiny of needy children from the fate of their unworthy parents repeatedly slams against unyielding truths of child development: the need for intensive human attachment, the traumatic effect of childhood separations, the rapid transformation of yesterday’s children into today’s child-bearers. It defies hard economic realities, too, like the fact that even mediocre substitute care for children (foster home or institution) costs much more than family subsidies, and that adoption, ideally both cost-effective and humane, is also governed by unforgiving laws of supply and demand.
There has long been an iron rule in American social welfare policy: Conditions must be worse for the dependent poor than they are for anyone who works. The less acknowledged corollary is that the subsidized care of other people’s children must be undesirable enough, or scarce enough, to play a role in this system of deterrence. In periods of widening inequality, the result of this invisible law becomes so harsh for children that it is difficult to reconcile with the rhetoric of benevolence.
Whatever the successes of the welfare overhaul of 1996, it has only been tested in a good economy. For the first time since the New Deal of the 1930’s, federal law no longer guarantees basic economic support to children living in their own families. It does still guarantee financial support for poor children placed outside their homes because of inadequate care. That means the next real economic downturn could bring a flood tide of children into the foster care system, in which well over half a million children already live today.
That is what happened in New York City after 1875, the year relief to poor families was drastically cut to end “pauperism.” At first the change was declared a success. But as recessions hit during the next two decades, more and more children went into orphanages run by private religious charities, where public money would still flow to support their care. By 1909, everyone agreed that the orphanage boom was a disaster for children and taxpayers alike. Foster home care was championed as an alternative, and so were mothers’ pensions, the state stipends that became the precursors to the Aid to Dependent Children provisions of the Social Security Act. Only with its passage in 1935 did the number of children in care decline dramatically and stay down during 25 years of narrowing income gaps.
By the 1990’s, new welfare rhetoric demanded personal responsibility for adults and modern orphanages for unadoptable children whose parents failed the test. In 1998, when the mother of Lamont’s three-year-old son, unemployed and facing eviction, applied for emergency food stamps, she and the child were turned away in the name of welfare reform. More recently, Lamont himself spent a night in jail for failing to pay $1,500 in child support arrears—an impossible sum on his meager wages. “My mommy put my daddy in jail,” his five-year-old son cried in class the next day, so disruptive that school officials threatened to call in child protection services.
My forthcoming book, “The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care,” is a quest to understand what went wrong—in one family’s entanglement in the foster care system and in recurrent crusades to make American child welfare fulfill its promise of benevolence. Because of the book’s sustained focus on one family’s experience during some 26 years, I had an opportunity to make readers care about a child, who then becomes a young parent, and to show the real life impact of interlocking social and legal policies in the ways that time and space constraints of newspaper reporting do not allow. Perhaps even more important, writing the book freed me as a journalist from the tyranny of today, to recognize and explore the deeper patterns at work in the events we are bound, as reporters, to showcase as departures from the past. I hope, too, that it informs the understanding of reporters and reformers in ways that serve the welfare—that is, the well-being—of children like Shirley Wilder’s grandson.
Nina Bernstein, a 1984 Nieman Fellow, is a metropolitan reporter for The New York Times covering poverty and social services. Her book, “The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care,” will be published by Pantheon in February 2001. Previously she worked for New York Newsday, the Milwaukee Journal (before it became the Journal Sentinel), and the Des Moines Register & Tribune (on the Tribune side, when there was still a Tribune).