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COLLECTION Identifier: MC 413; DVD-120

Papers of Justine Wise Polier, 1892-2015


Correspondence, reports, oral histories, photographs, etc., of Justine Wise Polier, judge and authority on juvenile justice.


  • 1892-2015

Language of Materials

Materials in English.


Access. Unrestricted, except that researchers must sign special form. An appointment is necessary to use any audiovisual material.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Justine Wise Polier is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


20.4 linear feet ((48 and two half file boxes) plus 1 folio folder, 1 folio+ folder, 1 DVD)
Justine Wise Polier's papers document her life-long commitment to juvenile justice and the welfare of children of all races and religions. They span her early career as labor activist and labor lawyer, her work as judge of the Family Court (1935-1973), and the more national focus of her work as Director of the Juvenile Justice Division of the Children's Defense Fund (1973-1976). They also document her committee and task force assignments and her voluntary service with child welfare organizations in New York.

Polier filed her papers by topic, or personal or organizational name. For the most part the original file folder titles have been retained, and descriptive notes and dates added where necessary. Folder titles that are not Polier's are in square brackets. Additional material received in 2001 and 2015 (accession numbers 2001-M35 and 2015-M81) were added to the collection in September 2015. These materials are housed in #609-612 and DVD-120.1. All other files remain in the same order. Folders are listed in intellectual, not numerical, order.

Series I, Personal and early career (#609-612, DVD-120.1, 1-23). Photographs, awards, clippings, a baby book, and oral histories provide an overview of Polier's life and work. Family correspondence, memos, and reports document her early career as a labor activist at the Passaic Textile Mills (1924-1926), and as counsel in the Workmen's Compensation Division of the New York State Department of Labor (1931-1935). Also includes a DVD and script of a play about her life by Ellen W. Kaplan, 2013-1025.

Series II, Family Court (#24-106), spans the years 1935-1973 and contains correspondence with other judges, memoranda, opinions, court transcripts, clippings, and reports of committees on which Polier sat by virtue of her appointment as judge: e.g., the Committee on Institutions which surveyed New York City institutional facilities for children, 1936-1971, and the Mental Health Services Committee, 1935-1969, which instigated mental health screening for children in the Family Court. Until 1962 the court was known as the Domestic Relations Court.

Series III, Children's Defense Fund (#107-204), consists of records of Polier's work as director of the Juvenile Justice Division of the Children's Defense Fund. It includes studies sponsored by the Children's Defense Fund, correspondence with Marian Wright Edelman and other child welfare experts, memoranda dictated by Polier for the files, documents from court cases in which Polier served as an expert witness or the Children's Defense Fund was an amicus curiae, and records of her travels, speeches, and research throughout the United States.

Series IV, Subject files (#205-385), contains reports, memos, and correspondence on topics relating to juvenile justice; many of these papers are relevant to Series II and III. They include files on adoption, child abuse and neglect, illegitimacy, racism, religious and race discrimination, the history of the juvenile court, mental health services for children, and refugee affidavits. They also include court transcripts for two cases relating to segregation: in schools (Skipwith) and in foster care institutions (Wildman v. Sugarman), and Polier's testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Series V, Organizations, task forces, and commissions (#386-491), contains correspondence, minutes, and reports of the myriad organizations that Polier served as president, chairman, or board member: American Jewish Congress, Antioch School of Law, Citizens' Committee for Children, Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, Field Foundation, Joint Commission of the Institute of Judicial Administration and American Bar Association, Louise Wise Services, New York City Commission on the Foster Care of Children, New York City Human Resources Review Board: Child Care Task Force, New York Foundation and Board of Education Survey of Three Harlem Schools, New York State Task Force on Juvenile Violence, New York State Task Force on Mental Services for Children and Youth, and Wiltwyck School.

Series VI, Correspondence (#492-608), follows Polier's arrangement; the letters are largely professional in nature.

Series VII, Writings and speeches (#540-608), includes early writings on the labor movement, Soviet Union, and workmen's compensation, and later writings on juvenile justice, mental health, race discrimination, and the State of Israel.


Justine Wise Polier, judge and authority on juvenile justice, was the daughter of Stephen Samuel and Louise (Waterman) Wise. Both parents were strong influences on their daughter: Stephen Wise was an inspirational reform rabbi, founder of the U.S. Free Synagogue, a leader of the U.S. Zionist movement, and active in social and labor reform; Louise Wise, social worker and painter, was the founder of Louise Wise Services, a social service agency.

Polier was born on April 12, 1903, in Portland, Oregon, where her father was rabbi, and grew up in New York City. She attended Bryn Mawr (1920-1922) and Radcliffe (1922-1923), and received her A.B. from Barnard (1924). She worked in a textile mill in Passaic, New Jersey, to experience factory life first-hand, took part in a union drive and strike, and left the mill when she was blacklisted by her employer. She studied briefly at the International Labor Office in Geneva (1924-1925) and visited and wrote about the Soviet Union. She then entered Yale Law School, was editor of the Yale Law Review, and received her LL.B in 1928. She married (1927) one of her professors, Leon Tulin; they had one son, Stephen Wise Tulin. After her husband's death in 1932, she married (ca.1936) Shad Polier; they had two children: Trudy (Hess Bradley) Festinger and Jonathan Wise Polier.

In an oral history interview, Polier recalled that she had attended Yale not because she wanted to practice law, but because she was interested in social and labor legislation. At the urging of Franklin Roosevelt, Frances Perkins hired her as Referee (1929-1934), and then Assistant Corporation Counsel (1934-1935) in the Workmen's Compensation Division of the New York State Department of Labor. Her study of workmen's compensation led to changes in the law enabling workers to choose their own physicians, thereby eliminating mismanagement and misuse of funds. In 1935 she was appointed counsel to the New York City Emergency Relief Bureau and to Mayor LaGuardia's Committee on Unemployment Relief. Insisting that public assistance was completely inadequate for the one million unemployed workers in the city, she clashed with General Hugh Johnson, the relief "czar." Later that year she was appointed judge in the New York State Family Court (then the Domestic Relations Court) of the City of New York, the first woman in the state to hold a judicial office higher than that of magistrate.

The court, which was new when Polier joined it, embodied the progressive ideal of paternalistic intervention by the State in what was considered the best interests of children. Polier's tenure on the bench (1935-1973) was consistently inspired by an activist judicial philosophy in which she perceived the court as the best vehicle to assure the welfare of neglected and dependent children. She saw gaps and discrimination in child welfare services and sought to secure nonsectarian and nonsegregated shelters for neglected children, humane detention centers for delinquents, adequate foster homes, youth camps, and expanded psychiatric and clinical services. She pioneered the "treatment method" of juvenile justice, seeing the court not as a means of punishment or part of criminal proceedings, but as an arm of the social services whose goal was to understand, assess, and diagnose the causes of anti-social behavior, and to prescribe remedies. Community organizations alone, she thought, could not be entrusted with this role. In the 1960s and 1970s, Polier's philosophy increasingly fell out of favor with liberals who distrusted authority, were suspicious of paternalism, and focused, according to Polier, more on the rights and less on the needs of children. She believed that critics too often castigated the limited effectiveness of the juvenile courts and the life of barren alienation in juvenile institutions, when they should have concentrated on the deteriorating social and economic conditions, inadequate public education, and poor health services.

While on the court, Polier served on the Committee on Institutions, a standing committee of the Family Court, which investigated New York City's facilities for children, especially those belonging to the Manhattan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She was also a staunch and early champion of the civil rights of Blacks. Finding few facilities that would admit delinquent Black Protestant youths, she helped found Wiltwyck School for Boys, a nonsectarian, interracial training school, and served on its board (1942-1981). In the Skipwith attendance case (1958-1961), Polier found that de facto segregation existed in schools in Harlem and castigated the Board of Education for practicing educational discrimination. She was also one of the initiators of a class action suit (Wilder v. Sugarman, 1971-1978) against all private and public foster care agencies in New York City on the grounds that their policies resulted in a child welfare system that discriminated against Black children. Observers in her court commented on her sensitivity, and her concentration on the needs of the child. She lived up to her claim that justice should not be blindfolded, but observant and quick to respond.

In 1973 Polier retired from the Family Court to devote herself to writing and to reform of juvenile justice on a national scale. As director of the Juvenile Justice Division of the Children's Defense Fund, 1973-1976, she traveled throughout the U.S., speaking, investigating, and giving expert testimony. Her office sponsored major studies: the detention of children in adult jails, the transfer of children from juvenile to adult courts (waivers), and the practice of banishment of children out of state beyond the reach of family members. At her initiative, Children's Defense Fund served as amicus curiae in such lawsuits as Roe v. Norton (1973-1975), concerning misallocation of AFDC (Aid for Families with Dependent Children) funds.

Polier's voluntary activities were closely interconnected with her professional interests. She served on the Joint Commission of the Institute of Judicial Administration and the American Bar Association, which set national standards in the field of juvenile justice, as well as the New York State Committee on Children and the Advisory Review Board on Human Resources for New York City. She chaired the State Committee on Mental Health Services and was president of Louise Wise Services that offered comprehensive services to unmarried mothers. She was president of the American Jewish Congress - Women's Division, on the board of the Field Foundation and the Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, and member of many other city and state committees. As an associate and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt (ER), she worked with her on the Citizens' Committee for Children and the board of Wiltwyck School. Polier was one of a group who tried with Roosevelt's advice, but unsuccessfully, to bring 10,000 German Jewish children to the United States. Roosevelt invited her to join the Office of Civilian Defense, where she served as a volunteer for three months, 1942-1943.

Polier was a prolific writer in the field of juvenile justice, publishing several books: Everybody's Child, Nobody's Child, 1943, Back to What Woodshed, 1956, A View From the Bench, 1964, and Juvenile Justice in Double Jeopardy (posthumous, 1989), and many articles, reports, and speeches. She also wrote and spoke on labor, and race issues, and Israel and the Middle East.

Polier died on July 31, 1987.


The papers have been rearranged in the following seven series: readers should note, however, that the same or related topics, issues, persons, and organizations occur in Series II-VI.
  1. Series I. Personal and early career
  2. Series II. Family Court
  3. Series III. Children's Defense Fund
  4. Series IV. Subject files
  5. Series V. Organizations, commissions, and task forces
  6. Series VI. Correspondence
  7. Series VII. Writings and speeches

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession numbers: 78-M112, 78-M144 79-M19, 80-M147 81-M116, 82-M215 83-M28, 83-M39, 83-M50, 85-M260 88-M57, 88-M114 88-M180, 90-M41, 90-M209, 2001-M35, 2015-M81

Most of these papers were given to the Schlesinger Library by Justine Wise Polier between July 1978 and May 1985; others were given by her daughter, Trudy (Hess Bradley) Festinger, between April 1988 and March 2001, the Field Foundation in November 1988, Dr. Viola Bernard in March and December 1990, and by her granddaughter, Debra Bradley Ruder, in June 2015. Those accessions given in March 2001 and June 2015 (2001-M35 and 2015-M81) were added to the collection in September 2015 and are represented by #609-612 and DVD-120.1.


  1. Box 1: Folders 1-16
  2. Box 2: Folders 17-27
  3. Box 3: Folders 28-38v
  4. Box 4: Folders 39-48
  5. Box 5: Folders 49-57
  6. Box 6: Folders 58-66
  7. Box 7: Folders 67-76
  8. Box 8: Folders 77-87
  9. Box 9: Folders 88-97
  10. Box 10: Folders 98-107
  11. Box 11: Folders 108-120
  12. Box 12: Folders 121-132
  13. Box 13: Folders 133-140
  14. Box 14: Folders 141-149
  15. Box 15: Folders 150-161
  16. Box 16: Folders 162-185
  17. Box 17: Folders 186-204
  18. Box 18: Folders 205-217
  19. Box 19: Folders 218-229
  20. Box 20: Folders 230-245
  21. Box 21: Folders 246-254
  22. Box 22: Folders 255-265
  23. Box 23: Folders 266-284
  24. Box 24: Folders 285-302
  25. Box 25: Folders 303-317
  26. Box 26: Folders 318-333
  27. Box 27: Folders 334-343
  28. Box 28: Folders 344-357
  29. Box 29: Folders 358-376
  30. Box 30: Folders 377-391
  31. Box 31: Folders 392-400
  32. Box 32: Folders 401-410
  33. Box 33: Folders 411-421
  34. Box 34: Folders 422-430
  35. Box 35: Folders 431-440
  36. Box 36: Folders 441-448
  37. Box 37: Folders 449-460
  38. Box 38: Folders 461-471
  39. Box 39: Folders 472-481
  40. Box 40: Folders 482-489
  41. Box 41: Folders 490-505
  42. Box 42: Folders 506-523
  43. Box 43: Folders 524-534
  44. Box 44: Folders 535-552
  45. Box 45: Folders 553-569
  46. Box 46: Folders 570-584
  47. Box 47: Folders 585-592
  48. Box 48: Folders 593-601
  49. Box 49: Folders 602-608
  50. Box 50: Folders 609-610, 612

Processing Information

Processed: June 1992

By: Jane S. Knowles, Ann Berman, Deborah Tucker

Updated and additional materials added: September 2015

By: Anne Engelhart
Link to catalog
Polier, Justine Wise, 1903-1987. Papers of Justine Wise Polier, 1892-2015: A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
The papers were processed with a grant from Clara Goldberg Schiffer.

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

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