Women of Valor


Wilder v. Sugarman

Justine Wise Polier, 1903 - 1987

Despite the changes brought by "Brown v. The Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act and the interpretation of civil rights by various courts," Polier spent her final years on the bench still battling the everyday presence of institutional racism. While white children were quickly accepted by private sectarian agencies, a "disproportionate number of Black children" were left in temporary shelters and rejected from voluntary residential treatment programs subsidized by the state.

When Polier's attempts to find foster care placement for Shirley Wilder, a young Black Protestant girl, met with typical rejection from every suitable agency, the judge helped initiate a class action suit. Wilder v. Sugarman, begun in 1974, charged both public and private foster care agencies with unconstitutionally discriminating on the basis of religion and race.

Because all foster care agencies in New York were listed as defendants, Louise Wise Services was included in the group being sued. As chairman of its board, Polier publicly proclaimed that her non-sectarian, interracial agency supported Wilder and the plaintiffs' position. But other powerful Jewish agencies vocally denounced the suit, claiming it impinged on children's right to religious freedom. Once again, Polier found herself speaking out against colleagues and friends.

The controversial Wilder v. Sugarman case spanned more than two decades of litigation, appeals and settlements. In the 1990s, its "ramifications are still being felt as New York City struggles to improve the placement process."

  1. For "the changes that have occurred as a result of Brown..." quote and statistics on discrimination, see Justine Wise Polier, Letter to Naomi Levine, Esq. 31 July 1973, Polier papers, box 21, folder 251.
  2. The case has spanned more than two decades: see Wilder v. Sugarman, 385 F. Supp. 1013 (S.D.N.Y. 1974); Wilder v. Bernstein, 499 F. Supp. 980 (S.D.N.Y. 1980); Wilder v. Bernstein, 645 F. Supp. 1292 (S.D.N.Y. 1986), aff'd, 848 F.2d 1338 (2d Cir. 1988); Wilder v. Bernstein, 725 F. Supp. 1324 (S.D.N.Y. 1989), aff'd, 965 F.2d 1196 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 113 S. Ct. 410 (1992), Wilder v. Bernstein, 153 F.R.D. 524 (S.D.N.Y. 1994), appeal dismissed. Case history listed in Wilder v. Bernstein 153 F.R.D. 524, United States Court of Appeals for The Second Circuit, 23 February 1995.
  3. On the position of Louise Wise Agencies as well as that of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York and others, see correspondence, notes and position paper drafts in Polier papers, box 21, folders 251-254.
  4. "ramifications are still being felt as New York City struggles to improve the placement process." quote from Knitzer, Jane. "Do Children Have a Future?" Readings June 1990: 11.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Justine Wise Polier - Wilder v. Sugarman." (Viewed on April 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/polier/wilder-v-sugarman>.