By William Harms
Photo by Jason Smith

Probably no other social work school in the country has the concentration of child welfare experts that we do at SSA.”
—Dean Neil Guterman

For researchers at the School of Social Service Administration, improving child welfare requires more than helping children under the care of government protection agencies. They also are studying innovative ways to prevent problems such as child abuse from happening in the first place.

“SSA looks at the issue of child welfare in its broadest sense,” says Sydney Hans, the Samuel Deutsch Professor at SSA. “We look at families involved in the child welfare system, and we study ways to promote healthy families.”

The new lines of preventive research are strengthening SSA’s historical leadership on child welfare issues. First established by researchers who worked with orphans, SSA always has been a leader in the preparation of social workers who are well trained to help familes in need.

In addition to Hans, the work of Neil Guterman, SSA dean and the Mose & Sylvia Firestone Professor, focuses on encouraging healthy parenting and preventing child abuse through early intervention. Some of the preventive work at SSA begins with infants; the school has the only social work program in the country geared toward babies and mothers. SSA scholars also cultivate partnerships with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, one of the nation’s major child welfare policy research organizations.

The recent arrivals of more child welfare specialists are broadening SSA’s expertise in the field. With the addition of Profs. Mark Courtney and J. Curtis McMillen, the school has strengthened its historic role as a national center for child welfare research.

“No other social work school in the country has the concentration of child welfare experts that we do at SSA,” Guterman says.

New faculty members bring broad experience

Courtney’s work has provided insights into how states can help foster children make the transition to college and productive lives as adults. His research contributed to a 2008 federal law that extended foster care eligibility to age 21, as well as related legislation signed in 2010 in California. For his work, Courtney received the 2010 Peter W. Forsythe Award for leadership in public child welfare from the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators.

“My work continues the tradition of early SSA scholars who used research to inform social policy and improve the functioning of institutions serving vulnerable children,” Courtney says.

Courtney returned to the SSA faculty in 2010, one of the additions SSA has made as the University as a whole is engaged in a significant expansion of its faculty. Another child welfare expert, J. Curtis McMillen, joined the SSA faculty this past year. McMillen studies issues related to the quality of mental health services received by child welfare clients, quality improvement and assurance in mental health organizations, and services for older youth as they leave the foster care system.

Continuing a history of working for children

Since its founding in 1908, SSA has led efforts to impove services for children and help them succeed in life. Early research projects by Edith Abbott and Sophonisba Breckinridge on delinquent children, poverty, and education led the school to an interest in Chicago’s system for housing and nurturing children whose parents were unfit or unable to care for them. At the start of the 20th century, such efforts came entirely from privately run agencies dependent on charity.

Today the school approaches issues of child welfare from many diverse perspectives. One new preventative effort at the school is Crime Lab, a cross-disciplinary program directed by SSA professors Jens Ludwig and Harold Pollack, which studies ways of preventing children from becoming involved in crime. Another research collaborative launched this fall, the STI and HIV Intervention Network, draws scholars from many fields to examine how some populations, including adolescents, become especially vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases.

The school’s impact continues to reach across many institutions in the areas of child welfare and education. Charles Payne, the Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor at SSA and an affiliate of the Urban Education Institute, served as interim CEO for the Chicago Public Schools in the spring of 2011. Melissa Roderick, the Hermon Dunlap Smith Professor at SSA, is an expert in urban school reform, high-stakes testing, minority adolescent development, and school transitions.

And Richard Calica, who received an AM in 1973 from SSA, began his service in December as director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. He had previously been executive director of the Juvenile Protective Association. His appointment is another example of how SSA is promoting child welfare through many avenues, Guterman says.

“SSA has a long history of informing and working to advance services for children facing abuse and neglect,” Guterman says. “We are looking for more ways to catalyze the development and translation of new scholarship so that it can be put into practice — in the field and in the classroom.”