Lamont Wilder sits in the barber chair he pays $180 a week to rent in a Dominican neighbourhood in the Bronx and points out the window across the Grand Concourse, the major thoroughfare that bisects the borough from top to bottom. Silver and blue foil balloons glint through the hazy, hot sun from an alleyway opposite, marking the spot where one of his customers was killed the previous week. “The first opportunity I get, I’m running,” he says, “This neighbourhood is horrible.”
The 45-year-old has spent his life running. Born into foster care, he grew up moving between placements and then children’s homes. He “aged out” of the system at 21 and ever since has been recreating the unstable patterns of his childhood. He’s struggled to maintain periods of stability, crashing into destitution, living in refuges and suffering debilitating mental illnesses. He has been diagnosed at various points with bipolar, personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I have a big fear of abandonment that I’m overcoming,” he says. “Leaving the foster care system is like a death. You have 12 brothers. Then nothing. My first night out I slept in the street – 24 hours later I rang to ask to come and wash and they said no. You’re out of the system. I was lost.”
Wilder is not unusual. When he was born, in 1974, the city was an industry of foster care. By the early 1990s, there were 50,000 children in foster care in New York as a result of the crack and Aids epidemics that ravaged its communities, and the city authorities’ impulse to remove the predominantly black and brown children from them.
But Wilder is unusual in one respect: his surname. The name Wilder appears on millions of pages in files that peppered the New York courts for a period of 26 years in what was dubbed the epic battle for New York City’s children. His mother, Shirley, was the named plaintiff in a class action that challenged the discriminatory practice that allowed the Catholic and Jewish-run foster care homes to select on religion, which meant that the rest, mostly black and protestant children, had fewer and worse options for care. Shirley Wilder ended up housed in juvenile detention when what she needed was a home.
The Wilders’ story is about the institutional and generational failure to look after the most vulnerable children in New York. Lamont Wilder tells it with a wide-eyed incredulity. He’s funny and smart and, even in middle age, he still comes across as a lost little boy.
“One of the biggest things I went through in the foster care system was not being able to relate to my own people,” he says. “I lived up state and we had accelerated education. We come out here to the Bronx and it’s all fucked up, I was on a completely different wavelength, it was culture shock. I’m not Dominican enough, I’m not black enough, I’m definitely not white enough. Where do I sit?”
Right now he has a stable job in the barber shop and rents a room in a house with a family who know his issues and support him. The crime and illegal drugs that surround him are foreign to him and he has no appetite for them. Lamont has a survival mechanism that is a blessing and a curse: the ability to fit into different worlds. When we first speak, I’m surprised to hear he has an English accent mirroring mine. It’s a tactic, he later admits, to blend into his surroundings by adopting accents. It’s allowed him to survive his life. But it’s also left him with a profound confusion about who he really is.
Along the way, people have tried to help him. A childhood piano teacher he befriended, a lawyer who employed him for a while. People quickly grow devoted to him. But he remembers his friends from the children’s homes: one who is now dying of Aids; another who is homeless and still dresses as his childhood hero Michael Jackson. These are the children that New York City raised, and failed to teach to grow up.
By the time the Wilder class action settled, the reformation of the system was underway. It was the beginning of a concerted attempt by the City to reduce the numbers of children in foster care. Today there are 8,300 children in the New York City foster care system, the result of improved circumstances in the city and a civil rights movement for parents that has reshaped how the welfare system works. Now the city bucks the national trend in the United States of rising numbers in care.
The Wilder era was supposed to begin the end of maltreatment of children by the government and their routine separation from their parents. It was supposed to get better. Did it?
Marcia Lowry is an elegant, composed attorney nearing retirement in her midtown chambers in Manhattan. She remembers Shirley Wilder. Lowry led that epic class action and was the person the hospice called when Shirley was dying from Aids in 1999. When she hears news of Lamont Wilder, for the first time in several years, she finds herself crying.
“I’m very surprised by my reaction,” she says. “Shirley was someone who was really smart, funny, but was really overcome by drugs. She had Lamont when she was very young. She was never able to have any relationship with him. But she was a really sweet person underneath it all. She just got dealt a bad hand and didn’t have the strength to overcome it. It’s just a sad story.”
She recalls Shirley, in her 20s, giving evidence in the class action, with a professional admiration. Like Lamont, Shirley’s childhood in care meant she could transcend the usual race, class and professional structures. “She was just fabulous. They asked her about sex and birth control and who she had sex with. Really down and dirty stuff. She was just so dignified and knew exactly what was going on,” says Lowry.
“She had a level of sophistication that people who have had the kind of life that she had had by that point, all of the knocks she had had, wouldn’t necessarily have. She held up beautifully.”
The Wilder case settled in 1999, having been renamed and morphed into something quite different from where it had started. But it outlived Shirley, who died five days before the case closed. What did it achieve? “I think it made people much more aware of the race issues that existed in the system,” says Lowry. “It was about religious discrimination. It was a big first amendment case. Public money was being used to support religious principles on birth control and abortion. That ended.”
But in many ways the Wilder class action was overtaken by the changes that were happening in society – the numbers of white children in the system was decreasing. The Catholic and Jewish organisations couldn’t discriminate even if they wanted to because today the New York City child welfare system is one almost exclusively for black and brown families.
Now Lowry is attempting to get class action status in a new legal action against New York City, to end the practice of children spending too long in care without decisions being made. “Kids drift through foster care. The services they get aren’t even poor. They are worse than poor. The bottom line in all of this is, I think, the kids are not being attended to.”
She says she’s not arguing whether kids should be returned to their parents or adopted permanently, but that one way or another, they need a decision earlier, rather than drifting through the system and “ageing out” like Lamont Wilder did.
In the family court house in the Bronx, I watch the process of a teenager ageing out in care. The decision is made to neither return her to her family nor have her adopted. She will spend the rest of her childhood in a home. Blink and you’d miss this decision, which is explained to me by a lawyer. The judge is kind to her, almost parental, offering her praise for her academic progress. The girl smiles and offers a shy wave by way of goodbye to this person who has made decisions for her that no one else has in her life.
Lowry says that should never happen. “The case is about the lack of permanency for the kids,” Lowry says. “It could be with the biological family or the adopted family. Yet no one ever makes a decision. The policies are good, they set out what should happen, but compare that with the reality and it’s awful.”
Does Lowry think that New York City separates too many families? “I think it separates too many and too few, and I don’t think it has the ability to decide who it should separate,” she says. “The population in foster care is way down, I’m sceptical about that because there are not adequate services. There are a lot of services but everyone is on a waiting list and the services, in the most part, are poor. Are we separating too many? Yes, but also too few.”
There is a spectrum in the debate for New York’s foster care system. At one end there are those who say that the city’s poorest parents just don’t parent well and their children would be better off adopted into wealthier families to break the cycle. At the other end: the abolitionists who say that the whole system is built on racism and needs to be scrapped and communities allowed to heal themselves.
Lowry says she occupies the centre ground in that debate, but she has fierce critics who say she represents a generation that has attempted to systematically break up some families.
Miriam Mack, 31, is closer to the beginning of her career but has the same elegant composure as a lawyer that Lowry has. She works out of the Bronx Family Court, in the shadow of the Yankees baseball stadium, and surrounded by an industry of justice that includes the giant civil and criminal courts, bail bond brokers and shop front lawyers.
The family court shows little sign of concession to the children in its waiting rooms who fill the cold, fluorescent hallways with the sounds of their play. Juvenile criminals, who are also tried there, shuffle through the corridors with handcuffs around their ankles. The administrators who run the courts are in full officer uniform. They carry guns and wear bulletproof vests. One claims this is the busiest family court in the country.
A toddler sits on her grandfather’s lap and plays with crayons at the back of one courtroom. A baby is in a car seat at the side of another, like luggage to accompany proceedings. By the court’s entrance is a day care centre where parents are encouraged to leave their kids while they are in court. But it is like no other childcare. If the decision is made in court to separate the family, the parents aren’t allowed to return to say their goodbyes. Three lawyers from two different organisations describe this one-way day care. The courts encourage it this way to avoid the horror of the sounds of children being removed in the hallways.
“It is incredibly difficult to bear witness to the level of disregard that our clients endure,” says Mack. “Child removal is emotional violence. To have to hear the families talked about like they are not even people, it’s frustrating. This is a system that targets and victimises black and brown families in particular.”
Mack works for the Bronx Defenders, which provides legal counsel to parents – paid for by the City but fiercely independent of it. Parents are supported by their lawyers but also by social workers and parent advocates – people who have been in their position and understand them. Mack currently has 70 different clients on her books.
Mack is clear about the difference she can make: “As a public defender we can make structural change over time by resistance over the day to day. And if I can just lighten the load my clients bear under the child welfare system, that’s enough for me.
“But I know I am trained to be part of a system that I think is inherently oppressive. I am trained to be part of a system that inherently privileges people with resources, with race privilege, with class privilege.”
In court Mack is cool and direct. In between hearings she works the halls of the court house. This is where the hustling comes in, giving “heads-up” to opposing lawyers of her intentions, ensuring they have the right paperwork, making sure they are abiding by their court mandated promises. “This job is using every available moment to handle things. From the little things like texting your client back to the big things like trying to see off a removal,” she says.
“It feels shitty to feel like you are just a cog in the machine. We are held up as ensuring that our client’s rights are protected but sometimes it feels like we are just there to keep the system moving. So the City can point at the child welfare system and say ‘they have good lawyers’, the system is ok.
“But we’ve changed the way family representation looks. They are criminalising and prosecuting our parents. As long as they do that I’m going to fight and I’m not going to be liked.”
The texts from clients showing pictures of their kids playing by the pool, or enrolling in school, make it all worthwhile, she adds. At the end of the day Mack goes home and winds down by binge watching the Bachelorette reality show.
Mack’s boss, Emma Ketteringham, who leads the family defence practice at the Bronx Defenders, says that expectations are made of poor, black and brown families that just wouldn’t happen elsewhere. “You read articles celebrating the ‘pot mammas’ of Park Slope in Brooklyn, where white, wealthy people live. Then you come in here and have to stop children being removed just because their parents smoke marijuana.
“This system is the fantasy of someone who designed it without their own children in mind,” she says.
The Bronx Defenders are part of the parent rights movement in New York City that many credit with helping drive down the rates of children in care from its peak at the height of the Aids and crack epidemics of the early 1990s. Every parent the City takes to court has the right to legal representation from specialist lawyers. And from their first meeting with the authorities, parents are provided with a “parent advocate”, someone who has been through the system to help and support them. The City has adopted this model, paying for advocates. But activists, including the Bronx Defenders, also provide independent parent advocates.
Martin Guggenheim, is a lawyer and professor of clinical law at New York University. “The parent advocacy community in New York has really changed the conversation,” he says. “Twenty years ago if you argued against a child being removed from their parents, you were condemned for not caring about children. Now judges question the harm that is done by removing children. That’s minor progress. But it is progress.”
Others say that the reduction in family separation has given way to a surveillance culture that causes a different kind of damage to families.
Erin Miles Cloud is co-director and founder of the Movement for Family Power, a national group campaigning for the abolition of the child welfare system in its current form. There is now a nascent movement questioning the very existence of the current child protection system, following in the footsteps of campaigns in America to abolish the prison system on race grounds. She says: “I think it is positive that fewer children are being removed, but the intense scrutiny and experience of surveillance cannot be told as a success. It creates a second-class citizen of parenting.”
What do critics mean when they identify surveillance? The state has a system of mandated “reporters” who because of the roles they hold – as teachers, day care workers, doctors, therapists – are legally required to report any suspicions of abuse to a state hotline. The City then, by law, has to investigate those complaints.
Cloud claims this surveillance culture weakens communities and divides families. It comes through the mandated reporters but also through the huge expansion of support services that are being supplied to families to tackle mental health, drug addiction and domestic violence in particular. “They might call it services, but they also frequently and interchangeably call it supervision,” she says. “They often say they want ‘another set of eyes’ on those homes. I don’t think everyone is evil and wants to do harm. But the reality is not about support in the home. It’s about surveillance. It doesn’t come from bad people but from bad systems.”
If cases go to court, families see the notes of the support services they’ve used as evidence in the case against them, Cloud recalls from her time as a lawyer in the Bronx. It undermines the supportive elements because parents feel betrayed.
Meanwhile, the Administration of Children’s Services (ACS), which runs child welfare services, has become weaponised within families. One young mother from the Bronx describes, with shame, calling the ACS in revenge on her aunt after her aunt was given custody of two of her children. Cloud says this is common and causes rifts between generations and siblings that never heal.
“When your family is threatened you clench to defensiveness and frustration and people point fingers,” Cloud says. “Instead of de-escalating that, ACS uses the finger-pointing to get information out of family members.
The Administration for Children’s Services is headquartered in downtown Manhattan, occupying a block between the 9/11 memorial and Wall Street, far from the Bronx and Brooklyn communities that take the bulk of its time.
Its grand art deco entrance gives way to grey cubicles. Kailey Burger is the assistant commissioner with the $330m annual budget responsible for the recent huge expansion of prevention services in New York. She says her strategy is to be rigorously evidence-based and to try and situate services, via the agencies that deliver them, as close as possible to the communities they serve.
“If you’re asking what we prevent, it’s increased incidence of child abuse and neglect, it’s worse harm to children and it’s removal of children,” she says. In contrast to what Lowry is claiming in her lawsuit, she says many of the prevention services are the envy of governments elsewhere. When they couldn’t find a domestic violence programme anywhere in the world that was proven to cure domestic violence, they set about designing one which is now in trial. Four out of five families complete programmes they start. Of those who complete, only one in 38 families have another child welfare investigation within six months. For those who enroll but do not complete preventive services, one out of seven have a repeat, substantiated investigation within six months.
But Burger recognises the reputational problems the ACS has in the communities it serves. “We [ACS] are one house, with one side taking children away. The other side is trying to help and be a friendly warm face. There’s some dissonance there. That works against us,” she says. “The other thing that works against us is this history of oppression. ACS was not always so progressive in thinking about services.
“Twenty, 30 years ago we were taking many more children into care and in a way that wasn’t as trauma-informed. There are many families who have lived in these neighbourhoods who have traditionally been over-policed who have generational contact with our system… There’s a historical consciousness of what’s happened and what ACS is and what it means to be in touch with ACS.”
I relay the stories of the surveillance culture I’ve heard from Cloud and other parents who came to a ThinkIn that Tortoise held in the Bronx. Burger doesn’t dodge the question. “These things are real and we need to hold that every day when we’re making decisions, because we’re in a position of power and authority and that can very easily become oppression,” says Burger.
“The reality is that every government institution is racist and it’s a system of oppression and things are designed intentionally to create poverty. That’s the way government institutions work. And so if you want to shift that, it takes a lot of time and it takes a strong focus on justice and it takes a strong focus on listening to people and it takes a focus on building things that people have more ownership over.”
The communications officer from ACS, sitting in on the interview, is getting nervous and intervenes. But Burger continues: “If you have a president who is saying things about immigration and we’re saying we’re a sanctuary city and everyone is welcome here, people are still hearing those messages. It’s about how do we as government work towards this vision of the long arc of history bending towards justice? How do families have access to what they deserve and an equal opportunity. I just think to ignore the history of our country and the president of our country and things that are going on at our border is wrong.
“The whole country has a racist history. It’s about making sure that everything we do is about moving forward to equality and fairness and equity.
Back in the Bronx, Lamont Wilder can’t sit still for long. Being a barber suits him because he’s on his feet and there’s always someone new to talk to every 20 minutes. He has a loyal clientele who return for his conversation and openness to all different walks of life. “They call me the LGBT barber. All the gay guys come for me. I had three guys come in for me one day: a dude in a dress, a midget, a body builder from Paris,” he laughs at the scene.
The thing he really wants to see from the child welfare system now is proper support for care leavers so they learn how to build their lives outside the system. He says that his reliance on refuges over the years, “voluntary prisons” as he calls them, was because he didn’t know how to live in society. Many care leavers also end up in jail.
Wilder has a son who is now 24, whom he hasn’t seen since he was eight, after a bitter break-up with his mother. They spoke regularly on Facebook up until five years ago when he suddenly went completely silent. Wilder found him on MugShots.com, a website that publishes the pictures police take on arrest. He had been sentenced to five years for felonious burglary after he stole a laptop from his ex-girlfriend’s home which he claimed was his. He is being released the week we meet and Wilder is hoping to rebuild their relationship.
It’s weighing heavily on his mind. He’s relieved his son did not ever go into the foster care system, a constant threat during the worst of the rows with his mother. But he is despondent that his son ended up in prison anyway. “Usually, as a young person, if you catch a felony you’re going to catch another one because no one will hire you,” he says.
Wilder says he has conflicting feelings about his institutionalised childhood. Being away from the Bronx and his birth parents, riddled with drugs and crime, is the thing that has kept him out of trouble. But it broke a part of him too.
“I’m thankful for the system but then I hated it at the same time,” he says. “It protected me from so much but it also kept me blind to so much. It was really difficult to blend in to society. It is really, really hard.”
Now he hopes he’s at the beginning of things getting better. “They say it happens when you get older. You start to master yourself,” he says. “I can see my own stuff as it’s coming. Maybe I need to ask for help. Maybe I need to stay inside for a while. I’m learning to master myself.”
• Read the full case file, Separated, here
Portraits by Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for Tortoise