An outspoken college dean has been ousted from his post at a Texas school of social work, nine days after he issued a harsh indictment of the U.S. child welfare system on a national news broadcast.
Professor Alan Dettlaff of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work first announced his removal in a series of tweets today, claiming that it resulted from his activism. Dettlaff has been a proponent of a controversial “family defense movement” — along with parent advocates, attorneys and other scholars — that pushes to upend the foster care system entirely, and “Abolish CPS.”
“While this isn’t what I hoped for, I’m very proud of my time as Dean and particularly of advancing an abolitionist perspective in social work,” wrote Dettlaff, who had been named to the post in 2015. “Unfortunately, the resistance to this was too great, and as a result I am no longer Dean.”
A spokesperson for the University of Houston (UH) confirmed in a statement that Dettlaff has been removed as dean, but would return to the faculty to “continue his own important scholarly work, which focuses on racial disparities, improving outcomes for LGBTQ youth and addressing the unique needs of immigrant families.” The statement described Dettlaff as a “well-respected thought leader in his field,” but noted that he might not have been the right fit as dean.
The spokesperson said University of Houston Provost Robert McPherson, an education scholar who was appointed Aug. 1 “initiated the change in leadership to better align the college with the university’s academic priorities.” The priorities were identified as “growing research expenditures and elevating the learning experience for all students as UH works to realize its vision of becoming a Top 50 public university.”
By many accounts, Dettlaff’s role in the child welfare field is noteworthy. In addition to his academic work, he is the co-founder of an advocacy effort known as upEND, which describes itself as “a collaborative movement that works to abolish the existing child welfare system, which is built on a model of surveillance and separation and more accurately described as a family policing system.”
UpEND supporters argue that foster care removals unfairly target people of color, the poor, the disabled and other marginalized groups, and far too often lead to more harm than good for the hundreds of thousands of children and families involved each year.
“Never once did one of the children I removed tell me later, ‘Thank you so much for removing me from my horrible abusive parent.’ When you would go back to see those children, all they wanted to know is when they would get to go home,” Dettlaff told the Imprint in 2020, referring to his early career experience working as a child protective specialist.
In an interview with The Imprint this afternoon, Dettlaff said he was disappointed with the university’s decision, and described it as driven by “the discomfort of a small number” of fellow faculty members.
“It makes some people uncomfortable, particularly people who have invested their careers in doing work within the system,” he said. “There tends to be a belief in academia that things are supposed to be neutral. And I disagree with that.”
Dettlaff said the university’s College of Social Work had grown considerably during his seven years as dean, with enrollment increasing by 40% in that time. He also said during his tenure there has been an increase in spending on research and faculty-authored publications.
“Our enrollment is up because of our focus on abolition — because students from all over the country want to come to our school to learn about that,” he said.
Requests for comments sent to four faculty members at the Graduate College of Social Work did not receive a response by deadline.
But Dettlaff’s views have been increasingly well-known of late. Speaking on a Dec. 4 broadcast to the national CBS audience on the show “Sunday Morning,” Dettlaff made clear his vigorous opposition to the child welfare system, where he began his career in 1996 as a child protective specialist investigating abuse and neglect allegations, and removing children from their homes.
“What we have as a system now, is a system that’s responding to harm, and inflicting an intervention on those children in a way that causes further harm,” Dettlaff told journalist Erin Moriarty.
The segment also featured University of Pennsylvania professor of law, sociology, and Africana studies Dorothy Roberts, whose widely discussed book argues that racism and constitutional violations are rampant in the child welfare system. She responded Wednesday to Dettlaff’s announcement on Twitter.
“A tremendous loss for your students and social work education more broadly. You are a pioneer in the growing call to question & transform social work to meet the challenges of abolitionist theory & activism,” Roberts tweeted. “I look forward to continuing to work with you in this struggle.”
In an interview, she warned of possible further consequences.
“The removal of Dean Dettlaff could send a chilling message to future leaders to be less challenging of the dominant view, which is being contested now,” Roberts said. “He has been a pioneer in transforming the training of social work to grapple with these crucial, cutting edge questions about the role of social workers in oppressive state systems.”
The upEND Movement Dettlaff has helped lead has also been called out by critics in the field.
A September 2021 essay titled “What Child Protection is For” published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute and co-signed by more than a dozen professors and former policymakers cited Dettlaff and upEND’s work in arguing “the claims made by those calling for the abolition of our child protection system range from questionable to demonstrably false.”
The University of Houston College of Social Work educates roughly 550 students in its masters of social work program each year, and roughly 40 in a doctorate program. The university also has a federally funded child welfare education program for approximately a dozen students this year whose tuition, books, and other costs are covered in exchange for pursuing careers in child protective services.
Dettlaff — a tenured professor who has authored or edited dozens of books and articles, and received millions of dollars in research funding — was the inaugural appointee to the Maconda Brown O’Connor Endowed Dean’s Chair in 2015. That appointment followed a $2 million donation to the social work college from a Houston-based philanthropy, the Brown Foundation, Inc.
In a letter sent to faculty, staff and students today, three associate deans for the college expressed shock at the decision to remove Dettlaff as dean. Some students, activists and other scholars also reacted angrily. A statement from students sent to the provost noted that some had “relocated from abroad, turned down Ivy League colleges and moved states to attend the school under Dettlaff’s leadership.”
Savannah Lee, a master’s student in the program, tweeted: “Students received this news today with no warning and no input. The loss of Dean Dettlaff is a huge one, but we will continue to push for our mission and values, as we organize to demand answers and a seat at the table.”
College Provost McPherson sent an email to faculty, staff and students this evening stating his commitment “to having new leadership in place very soon.”
Meanwhile, Dettlaff said on social media that he would not be deterred in his work.
“I want to assure all of you that my commitment to social work, to social and racial justice, and to the work of abolition, remain as firm as ever,” he wrote. “Backlash is something we know happens, but we also know that the work continues.”
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