Charles Dickens would be appalled to learn that the dark corners of cruelty to defenseless children that his novels exposed back in the 19th century still lurk behind the glitz and glamour of the 21st. In Hope's Boy, a work of nonfiction, Andrew Bridge recounts his agonizing stay at "an immense, asylumlike facility" in Los Angeles where he is taken after being whisked away from his mother, frightened and alone, at age seven.
Bridge describes MacLaren Hall as a place "where otherwise ordinary activities . . . became grotesque events. . . . For bathing, after we stripped, staff marched us naked through MacLaren's corridors to its central showers and tubs, where boys of varying ages grabbed at one another as staff looked on and laughed. For discipline, being sent to a corner meant staying there for hours. Being told to go to your room was replaced with being locked in a basement." (Embroiled in lawsuits, MacLaren was finally shut down in 2003.)
Bridge's Dickensian saga continues when he is placed with a family that offers little guidance and no real affection. He remains there, largely forgotten, until he "ages out" of foster care at 18. That he is able to outlast his fears in "a silent race to sunlight," secure a scholarship to Wesleyan, graduate from Harvard Law School and become a champion of children still lost in the system, is nothing less than remarkable, but one success story does not a good system make. "As when I was a child," he observes, "foster care largely remains a world of young mothers and frightened children. Ask about their lives, and their grief fills the air. Mothers speak of wrenching loss, and children speak of unyielding loneliness." Bridge writes with honesty and tenderness of his own mother, a woman whose mental decline forces their separation, but who nevertheless taught him "what was right and what was wrong, what was sane and what was crazy, what was love and what was not." He clings to her memory, to the hope of her return, and to the name he knows her by—not "Priscilla," as his case workers refer to her, but the name forever in his heart, "Hope."
Luckily for the 500,000 children in foster care today, Bridge has dedicated his adult life to changing the system. Barely out of law school, Bridge was sent to Eufala, Alabama, to investigate an adolescent center where isolation cells were used to punish children. "Children sat on a mud-covered concrete floor," he writes. "Begging to be released, they banged against the cinderblock walls, leaving behind hand and footprint smears, red from Alabama's clay soil." Files and depositions revealed that two boys, David Dolihite (15) and Eddie Weidinger (14), who had attempted suicide, had both been kept in one of these cells for more than a week. When Eddie found David hanging from his shoelaces, he tried to save him by chewing through the knot. David lived but was severely brain damaged. Both boys, Bridge finds, had come to the conclusion in their young lives that "no more hope was left to borrow from the future." Bridge later became the CEO and general counsel of the Alliance for Children's Rights, and, following the disappearance and death of hundreds of foster children, he chaired a task force investigating the safety and well-being of children in Los Angeles County's care. In 2002, his continued efforts allowed more children to stay with their families and still qualify for federal child welfare assistance. Bridge is also a founding director of New Village, which opened in 2006 to help children in foster care and the delinquency system prepare for college or skilled employment.
Hope's boy made a success of his life, and now gives hope to others, helping them make a success of theirs. For a tale well told, and the courage and dignity to tell it without bitterness, for a message ultimately of hope, Dickens would be proud.
Linda Stankard writes from Piermont, New York, with hope in her heart.