The Lost Children of Wilder, book cover

The Lost Children of Wilder

Nina Bernstein

Nina Bernstein

In the mid-1990’s, while researching her first book, Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care (Pantheon, 2001), New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein went to Hudson, NY.  There she discovered a treasure trove of previously unknown information about the House of Refuge for Women and the New York State Training School for Girls. Bernstein first reported the story for New York Newsday during a long-standing legal case against the New York City foster care system centered on Shirley Wilder a troubled girl sent to the Hudson Girls Training School in the early 1970s. Bernstein reveals how preoccupied she became during ten years of research, tracing the cracks and weaknesses of the child welfare system and highlighting recurring cycles of failure and solution. Bernstein pursued the mystery of Shirley Wilder’s fate through the jungle of bureaucracy, lost paperwork and official stonewalling.

This is the first installment in a series of interviews about the fascinating tale of Shirley, her child and the system of gender and justice in the American child welfare game.


Although famed jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald was not the subject of her book, Bernstein found out that Ella had been held at the Training School and subjected to cruel treatment. In this transcript excerpt from an audio interview of Bernstein conducted by public historian
Kathleen Hulser for the Prison Public Memory Project in 2012, Bernstein talks about searching for Hudson prison records…

One of the most tantalizing pieces of information that I got from a former employee was the director, the former director of psychology, Gloria McFarland, told me that she had looked into these old records, records from the twenties and thirties that used to be stored in old wooden filing cabinets. 

She was the one that told me that Ella Fitzgerald had been held there… Gloria McFarland told me about these rich records and I wanted very much to find them. Supposedly the records had been sent to the State Archives or to the main library there in Albany when the institution closed and turned into a men’s prison. But when I turned to the State Archives they said they didn’t have any such records.

Eventually I had to go back and try to retrace where these boxes had gone. I found, you know, the address of the state office building where they had been sort of, all this stuff had been left for a long time. I found the guy who was in charge, I mean this painstaking kind of thing, and where it led was back to the State Archives. So this time when I went back to them, maybe I was more insistent or something, but they looked harder and lo and behold these records, these ledgers with the oldest records about these women, these records were in a basement set aside and never catalogued. They had forgotten they had them.

…They wheeled this cart with these ledgers stacked on them and I felt I was really the first person in one hundred years to go through them…

The records that Gloria McFarland told me she had read about Ella Fitzgerald were destroyed on the order of the state. I actually talked with this man who had been in charge of these records and who described how sometimes he would get letters from people who were trying to get Social Security but because they had been born at the institution they had no birth certificate. He helped them do that. But on the other hand he was opposed; he thought it was absolutely right that they destroy the records because it was nobody’s business.