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“The Lost Children of Wilder” by Nina Bernstein Pantheon, 482 pages, $27.50 Journalist Nina Bernstein did not intend to write a 2001 version of Charles Dickens’ classic “Bleak House” or even a 2001 version of Jonathan Harr’s “A Civil Action” when she started researching the foster care system during the 1970s. Then she started looking into a New York City class action with a lead plaintiff named Shirley Wilder. After the Wilder case took over Bernstein’s mind, the book that became “The Lost Children of Wilder” seemed unavoidable. As published, it is reminiscent of Dickens’ fictional Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the case that dragged on for so many years that it became hard for just about everybody involved to remember the reason for the litigation. It is also reminiscent of Harr’s real-life Massachusetts environmental pollution case — partly because children die awful deaths, partly because it is a litigation thriller populated by hundreds of unforgettable human beings, one of those rare nonfiction books quite likely to stay with its readers nearly forever. Before moving to New York City to report for Newsday and then The New York Times, Bernstein wrote for newspapers in Des Moines and Milwaukee. She published articles about foster care breakdowns over and over, with increasing frustration. So-called reforms approved by legislators or child-care bureaucrats or judges rarely changed anything for the better. Children left in the homes of negligent or abusive parents would become dysfunctional, or sometimes dead. If the appropriate counseling, job training and food assistance had been devoted to those families, the children might have thrived. But the budgets of governments, churches and charities rarely contained adequate money for such a sensible approach. As a result, many families lost their children. Unfortunately, Bernstein observed, children separated from their biological families would far too frequently end up inside government-run institutions or government-approved private homes, where negligence and abuse turned out to be the norm. The children suffered just as much, at a much higher cost to taxpayers. If those suffering children managed to live to the age of consent, they frequently became criminals or public-assistance cases. Then they would be more likely to parent children who would later enter the still-broken foster care system themselves. Bernstein wanted to understand the unending cycle at its most fundamental. In 1990, while at Newsday, she thought she had found the vehicle — the lawsuit conceived by a public-interest lawyer named Marcia Robinson Lowry. Filed in 1973, the lawsuit challenged New York City’s practice of sending almost all its child-care money to private, mostly church-affiliated agencies. Catholic foster care agencies then gave preference to Catholic children in need. Jewish foster care agencies gave preference to Jewish children. Protestant children, especially African-American Protestant children in need such as Shirley Wilder, then age 13, had to fend for themselves in a dysfunctional family, or end up warehoused in an inadequate, government-run institution. Lowry and a few equally idealistic, angry colleagues believed that the system served most children poorly because it placed them according to religion and convenience, rather than according to their needs. In 1990, as Bernstein studied 17 years of Wilder documents, Lowry’s fierce lawyering had succeeded in partially dismantling the New York City system, and had caused other locales to rethink their foster care placements. But nobody had found enough money, will, qualified government social workers, and well-intentioned foster home providers to create a significantly better alternative. Bernstein became curious about Shirley Wilder as she read the documents. What really caught her attention was this fact: In 1974, the 14-year-old girl had given birth out of wedlock to a son. The son, Lamont, had ended up in foster care himself, separated from his mother. Where was Lamont, Bernstein wondered. How had he been treated inside the system that the lawsuit bearing his mother’s name had altered? Finding Lamont was not easy because of the confidentiality that permeates the child-care system in every jurisdiction. The confidentiality is theoretically meant to protect the children. What it does far more often is hide the ineptitude, callousness and corruption of adults earning their livings from the system. Even the best-intentioned government social workers fail to help most children assigned to them because the caseloads are so huge, the money so scarce, the alternatives so bleak. When Bernstein finally did find Lamont, he agreed to cooperate with her book project. His mother cooperated separately, and they eventually met one another. Bernstein’s detailed accounts of their lives separately and occasionally together is bound to make lots of lawyers, judges, social workers, private-sector providers, and elected and appointed officials unhappy. Her portraits are empathetic but unsparing. Her interpretations of the “why” behind the “what” frequently contradict the official version found in documents and reported by previous journalists. Bernstein’s story would not have a happy ending starting with the mother and child reunion. Unsurprisingly, the system had failed Shirley and Lamont. At the book’s end, Shirley is dead of AIDS before age 40, after many years as a crack cocaine addict. Lamont is struggling to hold a job and to keep his own son, born out of wedlock, from entering the still-broken foster care system. Steve Weinberg is a free-lance journalist in Columbia, Mo., who has seen — professionally and personally — breakdowns of the foster care system in Washington, D.C., Illinois, Iowa, and in his current home state.

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