Justine Wise Polier (1903-1987)

Source: American Jewish Historical Society, Newton Centre, Massachusetts and New York, New York

Justine, at approximately age ten, with her mother, Louise Waterman Wise

Source: Justine Wise Polier Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Justine Wise Polier standing in front of a self-portrait by her mother, Louise Waterman Wise, in the adoption agency founded by Wise in 1916

Source: Courtesy of Trudy Festinger

Justine and husband Shad Polier

A brilliant jurist and activist on issues related to child welfare and the law, Justine Wise Polier was also one of the earliest and most vocal critics of religious and racial matching in adoption. Although her name is unlikely to be counted in the top ranks of civil rights and social justice advocates, Justine Wise Polier deserves to be remembered alongside figures such as Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt. She worked tirelessly as a children’s advocate, was the recipient of numerous national awards and honors, and spoke and wrote widely on legal and social issues for a broad audience. Her brilliant career was nourished by a long and supportive marriage to second husband Shad Polier, an attorney who shared his wife’s passionate devotion to children’s causes. Her first husband, Lee Tulin, a professor of criminal law at Yale Law School, died of leukemia in 1932.

Polier was born in Portland, Oregon to well known parents. Her father was Rabbi Stephen Wise, a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and leader of the liberal American Jewish Congress. Her mother, Louise Waterman Wise, was a gifted artist who started one of the country’s first specialized adoption agencies, the Free Synagogue Child Adoption Committee, in 1916. Her mother’s determination to find homes for Jewish orphans at a time when adoption was still rare among Jews made a deep impression on the young Justine.

Child and family welfare became the focus of Polier’s long and distinguished career as a judge. A child of privilege and elite education—she attended Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, Barnard, and then Yale Law School—Polier was appointed to the Domestic Relations Court in Manhattan by Fiorello La Guardia, the first judicial appointment in New York state to elevate a woman above the rank of magistrate. It was 1935 and Polier was just 32 years old. She did not resign her judgeship until 1973. After that, she directed the Juvenile Justice Division of the Children’s Defense Fund. She also played a pivotal role in mobilizing support for the Wilder case, a landmark class action suit filed in 1973 that eventually transformed the sectarian rules of New York’s large foster care system, which had been in place since the nineteenth century.

Adoptions were among the happiest events in Polier’s courtroom and she championed adoption’s civic potential as well as its personal value. Providing children with family love and permanent belonging would produce better, more law-abiding citizens as well as happier people, she believed. Polier maintained an active role in the adoption agency her mother founded. Beginning in 1946, she served as President of its Board of Directors and renamed it Louise Wise Services to honor her mother’s memory. Under the leadership of Polier and agency Director Florence Brown, Louise Wise Services was transformed from a sectarian organization devoted to Jewish adoptions into a national innovator in services for children of color in the 1950s and 1960s. It pioneered African-American adoptions, transracial adoptions, and placed more children for the Indian Adoption Project than any other private agency in the United States.

Polier believed that pluralism and separation of church and state were the essence of Americanism. During the 1930s and 1940s, when matching was almost universally accepted, Polier’s criticism of it made her extremely controversial. She rejected the idea that children were the permanent property of parents or organized religion and suggested that families encompassing different faiths, races, and cultures were compatible with both child welfare and democracy. Because most child welfare services in New York were delivered by sectarian agencies that gave preferential treatment to their “own” children while excluding others, Polier equated matching with discrimination and accused its supporters of being children’s enemies.

This view gained ground during the early stages of the civil rights movement that followed World War II, when the goal of integration underlined inter-racial commonalities and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. expressed a universalistic morality that was as passionately admired as it was reviled. Here is how Polier put it in 1960: “By accepting this [matching] theory, we even justify the denial of loving family care to children who look different, speak differently, or have cultural backgrounds different from the stereotype of the American majority. This bulldozer approach to the newcomer or the ‘different’ child, which seeks to level the peaks of cultural differences in American life, has contributed to the tragic shortcoming in our services.”


Document Excerpts

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3699
E-mail: adoption@uoregon.edu
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© Ellen Herman