Nina Bernstein, The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care (Pantheon Books, 2001)
Reissued in paperback by Vintage in 2002.
Until recently, the majority of public funding to house foster children in New York City went to Catholic and Jewish organizations, leaving many black Protestant children trapped in reformatories and prison-like group homes. When Shirley Wilder, an indigent product of the latter, filed an ACLU class action lawsuit in 1973 challenging the way the child welfare system was funded, no one could have predicated that her case would take 26 years to settle — least of all journalist Nina Bernstein.
But Bernstein saw potential for a story within the case's thousands of pages of depositions, expert reports, and court transcripts, and so for seven years she worked tirelessly at re-creating the events that led to Shirley Wilder's decision to single-handedly change the child welfare system. The result is The Lost Children of Wilder, an extensive and seamlessly written account that interweaves Shirley Wilder's life story with major developments of the case. Bernstein retraces the instances of abuse, escape, loneliness, and momentary happiness that Wilder experienced while in foster care with remarkably vivid detail. Similarly, she follows the story of Wilder's son, Lamont, as he endured the pain of being separated from his mother after he, too, was placed in foster care.
In a review by The New York Times, Tanya Luhrmann hailed the book as "a brilliantly researched account of an attempt to make the New York City foster care system fair for all its children," while City Limit's Suri Duitch wrote, "Bernstein's obvious empathy with her subjects makes for clear analysis of knotty situations and a much more engaging read than you could get from a reporter with more distance from the topic." It should come as no surprise, then, that The Lost Children of Wilder went on to win both the PEN 2002 Literary Award for nonfiction and The New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism.
Bernstein was working for New York Newsday in 1994 when her Wilder series was rewarded with two grants to continue her research into foster care. She is now a staff writer for the Metro section of The New York Times, where she continues to write about the child welfare system in New York City.
American University Radio: Audio Interview with Nina Bernstein
Denver Post: Book Review
Post-Gazette: Book Review