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Suffer the Children | The Nation

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Suffer the Children

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In 1995 the brutal slaying of Elisa Izquierdo by her crack-addicted mother seized headlines. Responding to the public's outrage that city officials had ignored obvious signs that the 6-year-old was being tortured at home, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared that he was creating a new children's agency with a tough new executive in charge and adopting a stringent new policy of removing children from their homes at the first signs of danger.

Of course, Elisa Izquierdo was not the first child supposedly under the watch of authorities to die at the hands of her caretaker--there were twenty-six others in New York City in that year alone. But only when these gruesome stories make the nightly news do politicians step into the spotlight and announce innovative new policies as solutions to this newfound concern. In fact, abuse and neglect of children have always been with us, and the answer to the problem is neither new nor complicated.

The mid-nineteenth century might seem an unlikely place to embark on an exploration of the failings of modern child welfare. But in Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, Stephen O'Connor reveals the value of tracing a dysfunctional system back to its troubled origins. By telling the story of the father of modern foster care, O'Connor illustrates how the haphazard amalgam of paltry efforts we today call a child-welfare "system" developed out of well-intentioned but frequently misguided notions about children, poverty and social responsibility.

When Charles Loring Brace arrived in New York in 1848, fresh out of Yale Divinity School, he found a city in chaos. The "belles and beaus of high society" strolled down Broadway alongside the most wretched of the poor. Nearby, slums overflowed with immigrants and workers who had flocked to the factories that proliferated with the boom of industrialization. Working-class families lived on the edge of poverty; when they slipped over that line, their children were forced to supplement their parents' income with what they could earn on the streets. Those from the most destitute families--ravaged by disease, alcoholism and violence--often never returned home.

Brace, of course, was not among this crowd. Although at 22 he'd ostensibly come to New York to teach, write and continue his theological studies, he was a confident young man-about-town who spent much of his time with prominent friends like Frederick Law Olmsted, enjoying the "rush and whirl" of Manhattan in posh clubs and hotels. The son of a minister with a keen interest in moral philosophy, Brace had some sympathy for the poor, but it was not until his sister fell seriously ill that he began to act upon it. He started by preaching at almshouses, where he found solace in a belief in God and a conviction that he, as a gifted young man, could do God's work. As his sister, Emma, neared death, Brace wrote to her of his growing concern: "You can have no idea, Emma, what an immense vat of misery and crime and filth much of this great city is! I realize it more and more. Think of ten thousand children growing up almost sure to be prostitutes and rogues!"

It is telling that Brace chose to describe them that way. As O'Connor carefully documents, relying on letters and Brace's published writing, when Brace founded the Children's Aid Society (CAS) three years later, his motives were twofold: He wanted to help poor children but also to rid the city's upper classes of the frightening vagrants who preyed upon them. Such children were destined, he believed, to "poison society," growing up to become what he later termed, in the title of his 1872 book, The Dangerous Classes.

Confident in his own superior intellectual and moral fiber and mindful that taking the lead on such an issue could do much for his social standing, Brace helped to found the Children's Aid Society, which provided religious, vocational and academic instruction and created the first shelters for runaways. But the agency was soon overwhelmed by the demand of thousands of needy children for its services. In 1853, Brace and his colleagues hit upon what they deemed a brilliant idea: If the conditions for the poor were so miserable in the city, why not send their offspring to the country? In Brace's idealized vision, country folk were solid, virtuous people of the soil, thriving on fresh air and abundant food and opening their arms to strangers. Surely, Brace thought, children would be better off with them than with their wretched parents in the city's slums. Brace began to advertise vagrant children to country families and made the earliest placements in this manner. But he soon decided upon an easier and far cheaper way to place children: Simply round up a group and send them on a train headed west. When they arrive at their destination--usually an isolated farming town--the local residents could look them over and choose the ones they liked best.

Not surprisingly, this didn't turn out to be the best way to forge new families. Using original testimony and vivid accounts of a sampling of children, O'Connor illustrates the harsh consequences of taking children from their impoverished parents and placing them in poorly screened and supervised homes with strangers. Although some of these "orphan train" riders were apparently successful, at least professionally--two became governors, another became a Supreme Court Justice and several more held other public offices--many fared poorly. Some became criminals, and at least one became a murderer.

But perhaps most significant is that we know almost nothing about what happened to the vast majority of them. For the agency not only made little attempt to investigate the families that received children, it made even less effort to determine what happened to the children after they arrived. Record-keeping was so poor that estimates of the number of children the society placed between 1854, when the first train took forty-six children to Dowagiac, Michigan, and 1929, when the CAS sent its last batch from New York City to Sulphur Springs, Texas, range from 32,000 to 300,000. O'Connor concludes that roughly 250,000 city children found foster homes via orphan trains, run not only by CAS but eventually by various other agencies that followed suit.

The impression of this venture is, to say the least, disturbing by today's standards. But O'Connor is careful to point out that Brace, despite his flaws, was revolutionary in his thinking about child welfare. In an era when poor, orphaned and abused children were either left on the streets, thrown in prison or warehoused in orphanages, he was the first to articulate and act upon the belief that if at all possible, children should be raised in families. Rejecting the Puritan notion that children are damned and must be saved through strict discipline and piety, Brace adopted the Victorian conception of them as innocents in need of protection.

That notion of children persists today. Unfortunately, so does the complete failure of society to invest the resources necessary in a system that can protect and nurture them. O'Connor follows his well-told account of Brace's life with a thoughtful examination of his legacy. Sadly, there are countless parallels between the failures of the Children's Aid Society's early attempts at child-saving and the shortfalls of our child-welfare system today.

Although we no longer send them half-way across the country, the more than half- million children in contemporary foster care face a similarly uncertain future, frequently bounced from one ill-prepared home to another, placed with families set up for failure because they rarely receive the support they need. And although these days preservation of the birth family is at least a stated goal of child welfare policy, effective programs to accomplish it are sorely lacking, and often the first slice off a child welfare agency's budget. Caseworkers receive minimal training, too many cases and inadequate pay, and rarely stay in the job long enough to learn how to do it well. Poor record-keeping and computer systems compound the problem, making it often impossible to monitor progress of any given child.

Many of those shortcomings, and the difficulties contemporary child-savers encounter in trying to solve them, are exemplified in the saga of Shirley Wilder and the lawsuit brought in her name, told in Nina Bernstein's The Lost Children of Wilder.

Shirley Wilder was a 13-year-old runaway when her father went to Manhattan family court asking that she be "put away." Unfortunately, there was no good place to put her. By the time she entered foster care in 1971, Shirley had endured the death of her mother and grandmother, and the abuse by her father and stepmother, who had taken her in. It was clear she needed intensive therapy in a residential treatment center. But none of the private agencies that ran them would accept her. The judge had no choice but to send Shirley, who had not been accused of any crime, to a harsh reformatory for delinquents that provided virtually no psychiatric or therapeutic services. "Hadn't the time come," a frustrated judge asked Shirley's lawyer in court, "for the law guardians of New York County to...sue the state on behalf of children like Shirley?"

The problem was that although the system was ostensibly run by the city and state, it was largely controlled by private religious agencies that contracted with government to provide foster care. Mostly Catholic and Jewish, they were legally allowed to discriminate in favor of children of their "own kind." That meant that children like Shirley--African-American Protestants--were stuck with the worst the child-welfare system offered: the most underfunded and poorly managed foster care and institutions.

This was what Marcia Robinson Lowry, then a 32-year-old lawyer at the New York Civil Liberties Union, hoped to change when she filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in 1973. Charging that the system violated the Constitution's First, Eighth and Fourteenth amendments, Lowry sought to end the use of religious agencies to provide child-welfare services in New York City.

It was a bold move on Lowry's part, for in suing the city, state and seventy-seven private agencies, she was taking on not only the government but also some of New York's most influential power brokers, including the Catholic Church and the distinguished lawyers and businessmen who sat on the agencies' boards. As one advocate put it, "She was fighting against the most powerful, wealthy people in New York, and they had God on their side."

But Lowry was not deterred. On the contrary, the challenge was intoxicating. But her determination and ambition could be blinding, and, matched with poor public relations skills, it only exacerbated the animosity of her opponents and hampered the possibility of an earlier and more productive compromise. Indeed, many of her adversaries recognized that the system was unfair; they just didn't believe the answer was to cut out the religious agencies, which provided far better services than the city-run facilities. But for years, the remedy was not open for discussion.

Bernstein intersperses chapters chronicling the behind-the-scenes drama of this bitterly fought lawsuit with the disheartening narrative of Shirley's life, emphasizing the disconnection between the battle of the advocates and the lives of the children they aimed to represent. At 14, Shirley gave birth to a son, Lamont. She had little choice but to relinquish him to foster care. Although he was initially sent to what seemed a promising home, it was destined to be temporary. Like so many, writes Bernstein, "Lamont's placement...had been selected not through some conscious weighing of alternatives informed by law and social policy, but in a kind of paroxysm of bureaucratic improvisation."

Like the early Children's Aid Society, the modern foster-care system Bernstein illustrates is plagued by chronic shortages: of decent foster homes and of sufficient staff trained to screen and supervise them. The children in care, moreover, rarely get the help they need. Lamont, for instance, was shunted from one failed foster home to another, to a psychiatric hospital and then to a frightening institution. He was denied medical care and inappropriately diagnosed for his all-too-predictable emotional disorders. Lost files and glaring gaps in record-keeping over the years hampered the ability of even the most well-meaning caseworkers to help him, and frequent staff turnover only reinforced his sense of instability.

Lowry's lawsuit, meanwhile, was stymied by hostile opponents, obstructionist judges and the inflated egos of lawyers on both sides. While the attorneys fought over settlement details, New York City and its child-welfare system sped beyond it; the crack epidemic in the 1980s devastated inner-city families and overwhelmed the city's social-service systems. By 1988, when the Wilder settlement was finally approved by the Court of Appeals, it had become irrelevant: The overwhelming majority of children in the child-welfare system were black Protestants, and the agencies had little choice but to accept them.

The settlement decree, moreover, had spawned a bureaucratic thicket that arguably did more harm than good. A professor of social work and member of the panel created to oversee the settlement's implementation called it "a quagmire." It's "the most frustrating thing I've ever been involved with.... I can't even explain it to myself at the end of the day." Although no longer placed according to religion, children were now placed in foster care according to "hit-or-miss telephone brokerage."

Like Charles Loring Brace, the child-savers of the modern world, Bernstein shows us, are limited by personal ambition, overconfidence and limited means. A lawyer like Lowry can pursue ideals unimpeded by the political and financial considerations that restrain government officials. But the pace of a lawsuit snaking its way through the court system is out of sync with the rapid changes in the life of a child. While the twenty-six-year action dragged on, Shirley's life descended into crack addiction, homelessness and chaos. The same week the lawsuit ended, 39-year-old Shirley died alone in an AIDS hospice. Lamont was working in a barber shop but living a marginal existence, intermittently homeless and unable to support his estranged girlfriend, who struggled to keep their son out of foster care.

Unfortunately, that is where Bernstein leaves us. Although she provides an effective narrative of the dour lives of foster children and the immense efforts made on their behalf, Bernstein never analyzes the problems or suggests ways of fixing them. As a result, The Lost Children of Wilder implies that the child-welfare system and attempts to improve it are hopeless. That's the wrong message. Like Brace, child advocates of today may be flawed, but they play an important role by prodding an otherwise intransigent system. Indeed, New York has begun to improve foster-care services partly in response to a lawsuit Lowry and her colleagues brought in late 1995 that reached beyond the Wilder case.

Still, far more remains to be done. New York foster children spend too long in care: four and a half years on average, excluding the very short-term cases. Improvident placement means most have to switch homes at least once, and some 7 percent of the 32,000 suffer that trauma five or more times. Meanwhile, abuse in foster homes seems to be on the rise: Substantiated reports of maltreatment more than doubled between 1996 and 2000, although the city's foster care population declined by almost 25 percent in that time. And New York's system is no worse than many others: conditions are so bad around the country that since 1980, sixty-five class actions have been filed against child welfare systems for failure to meet minimum legal standards.

The consequences of such failures are explored well in another recent book, Michael Shapiro's Solomon's Sword: Two Families and the Children the State Took Away. More than just a sensitive account of two ruptured families, it also provides an insightful analysis of child welfare policy and practice and offers prescriptive suggestions.

As O'Connor aptly concludes, "the simple truth is that if we are going to have a child welfare system that does everything we know it can do, and that ostensibly we want it to do, we are going to have to spend more money."

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