Nina Bernstein. Pantheon, $27.50 (528p) ISBN 0-679-43979-X
In this first-rate investigation, New York Times reporter Bernstein explores the genesis and aftermath of the landmark 1973 legal case filed by young ACLU attorney Marcia Lowry against the New York State foster-care system. Known as Wilder for its 14-year-old African-American plaintiff, Shirley "Pinky" Wilder, the suit claimed Jewish and Catholic child welfare services had a lock on foster care funding and placements. Like Susan Sheehan in Life for Me Ain't Been No Crystal Stair, Bernstein illuminates broader social issues through the story of Shirley; Lamont, the son she bore at 14; and Lamont's young son-all graduates of New York's hellish child welfare system. The tale is gut-wrenchingly Dickensian-all the more so because, as Bernstein shows, the well-meaning 19th-century Jewish and Catholic philanthropists, clerics and parents who founded and expanded the child welfare system in New York ultimately deprived huge numbers of children of their legal and human rights as the demographics of New York changed. It took 25 years and many more lawsuits before the reforms mandated by Wilder began to be realized. In the interim, Lamont endured the same excruciating experiences his mother had suffered, including physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, witnessing the deaths of other children in foster care and losing his own child to the foster care system. A crack addict, Shirley died of AIDS at 40. Despite these horrors, the book ends with the hopeful postscript that Lamont's son currently lives with his mother, Kisha, and visits his now self-supporting father on weekends. Ten years in the making, this viscerally powerful history of institutionalized child abuse and the criminalization of poverty, of civil rights and social change, is compelling and essential reading. Agent, Gloria Loomis. (Feb. 28)
Forecast:Like Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities, this book has the potential to jumpstart a national conversation about the failings of our social safety net for impoverished children. If it garners the review attention it deserves, it will find a solid audience among readers of Kozol's and Sheehan's books.