Richard Gelles, Pioneer in Family Violence Research, Dead from Brain Cancer

Richard Gelles
Credit: Penn School of Social Policy & Practice

Richard Gelles, a well-known researcher on family violence and former head of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, died in late June of brain cancer at the age of 73. 

“Child welfare has lost a character and a thoughtful champion,” said Cassie Statuto Bevan, a colleague at the university, in an email to The Imprint

In 1974, a year after earning his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of New Hampshire, Gelles published “The Violent Home,” an intense examination of 80 adults that was among the earliest attempts to study the nature of domestic violence. His body of work over the next two decades helped to influence the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, a law that set federal timelines in place aimed at speeding up the process of terminating the rights of parents in hopes of finding adoptive placements for children.

Gelles’ perspective on the system in many ways cut against the current thinking of both progressive child welfare reformers and current leadership in the Trump administration – both are focused on moving the emphasis upstream to prevent the use of foster care in far more cases where child abuse or neglect is documented. Gelles was convinced that systems were too focused on returning children to parents, sometimes to the detriment of children.

“Child welfare administrators, caseworkers, and advocates maintain that their primary concern is child safety, that they try to reunify families only if the child’s safety can be assured,” Gelles wrote in a 1999 op-ed published by The Christian Science Monitor. “In reality, the social services and judicial systems continually favor the rights of biological parents in child welfare actions.”

The solutions, he noted, were more adoptions, “permanent guardianship” by relatives, and “even orphanages.” While few others have argued for the return of orphanages – indeed, recent laws have steered spending away from congregate settings – federal legislation in 2008 helped spur an increase in kinship guardianship agreements. About 10% of all children exiting foster care went to guardianships with relatives or other kin, according to national data

But Gelles also believed that the child welfare system was not built to help parents succeed. In the same 1999 op-ed, he decried the system’s inability to “target and identify high-risk cases” while offering services tailored to a family’s “individual needs and readiness to change.”

Robin Hernandez-Mekonnen, a longtime student of Gelles, said he called the federal Title IV-E entitlement for foster care payments a “perverse incentive” to take kids and keep them in foster care.” He also criticized the push to expand the field of adults who are mandated reporters – people required to report any suspicion of child maltreatment to hotlines – for contributing to “a system that’s stretched too far, investing too many resources in unnecessary investigations at the front end.”

Gelles’ “work resonates now, perhaps more than ever, as more and more people come to understand the harm the child welfare system causes children and families of color due to the subjective nature of its responses,” said University of Houston professor Alan Dettlaff, who recently helped launch the upEND Campaign aimed at abolishing the current structure of the child welfare system. 

Hernandez-Mekonnen, the former student of Gelles, sent Dettlaff writings by her mentor from the 1970s calling for a deconstruction of the system. 

“I am heartbroken by his death,” said Hernandez-Mekonnen, now a professor at Stockton University in New Jersey. “I never felt he had finished teaching me, or I had finished learning from him.” 

Gelles’ wife Judy Gelles, an accomplished artist, photographer and filmmaker, died on March 14 of a ruptured brain aneurysm. He is survived by his two sons, David and Jason, who both work in television. 

John Kelly can be reached at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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