Jessica Reaves, writer
SSA’s Edith Abbott Award recognizes SSA alumni for distinguished service to society and for outstanding professional contributions at the local, national, or international levels. Charles Curie and Jona Rosenfeld, the two winners of the 2011 award, represent the best of the School’s graduates and the field of social work.
Much has changed in the 30 years since 2011 Abbott award winner Charles Curie, A.M. ’79, began his career in social work. Today, unlike in the 1970s, clients grappling with mental illness have access to many options for cutting-edge medications, and ongoing advances in neuroscience provide clinicians with new clues into the once inscrutable mechanics of the human brain.
But to Curie, one of the most profound advances in the field didn’t come from a lab. “The concept of recovery has become a truly foundational concept in social work,” he says. “It started in the substance abuse community—the idea of an individual journey, of gaining a life. It’s the understanding that if someone begins to be able to focus on what they want to do in their own life, and they’re able to achieve outcomes, that’s going to help them avoid relapses.”
This idea—that the client or patient is a whole person, someone who can and should dream about a life beyond mental illness or addiction—is a hallmark of Curie’s exceptionally humane professional philosophy and has informed every chapter in his long career.
“Someone with a serious mental illness, what they want is connectedness, community, a life like everyone else has,” Curie says. Thanks to this perspective, new medications and a better understanding of psychosocial interactions, he explains, “many more people are living in society who might earlier have been institutionalized.”
Having grown up in Indiana, Curie earned his undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology from Huntington University. After receiving his master’s from SSA, Curie worked for and eventually managed various private healthcare programs in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Tom Ridge, then the governor of Pennsylvania, appointed him deputy secretary for mental health and substance abuse services for the state’s Department of Public Welfare, where Curie made mental health services and drug and alcohol treatment more accessible to Medicaid recipients. Pennsylvania won the 2000 Innovations in American Government Award for his policy eliminating the use of seclusion and restraint practices in state hospitals.
In 2001, former President George W. Bush made Curie head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). After being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Curie led the $3.4 billion agency for five years, overseeing the nation’s mental health services, addiction treatment and abuse prevention programs.
During both appointments, Curie says, he attempted to instill a sense of urgency in his colleagues. “I was surprised,” he says, “by how insular government officials and programs can become how isolated from the front lines and the real issues facing patients and providers.”
In 2006, Curie left government to start his own management consulting firm. Today, The Curie Group, LLC specializes in guiding companies’ efforts to advance mental health and substance abuse treatment and prevention. “The goal,” he says, “is to address the needs we see in the community.”
Curie is particularly proud of the firm’s efforts in promoting public-private partnerships. “One of my clients is a nonprofit organization that primarily serves veterans, and they found that financial concerns were the number one stressor among troops heading to Iraq or Afghanistan. So this group designed a plan to give military spouses the skills to run call centers from their homes— mitigating the financial stress, adding another salary, and with no need for childcare.”
When another Curie Group client heard about the initiative, they donated $150,000, providing the necessary seed money that led to a large contract, setting the stage for an entirely self sustaining program.
Asked to identify the moment when he knew he’d chosen the right professional path, Curie didn’t hesitate— after leaving SSA, during his first year working in a branch office of a mental health center, he was assigned to a group of clients who had recently been discharged from mental hospitals.
“I was profoundly moved by the impact these serious, sometimes disabling mental illnesses had on people, and how the right focus and treatment plan could help individuals gain strength,” he says. “It helped me realize where I wanted to focus my career—initially on mental health issues, but that eventually expanded to include addiction. I was so moved by the great need among former patients. And I became very motivated to help assure that people with serious mental illnesses would no longer be marginalized.”
Jona Rosenfeld, A.M. ’56, Ph.D. ’62, has spent much of his career speaking out on behalf of people relegated to the fringes of society— populations profoundly affected by poverty and persecution because of nationality and for other reasons. Today, half a century after earning his doctorate in social work from SSA, the 2011 Abbott Award winner continues that work—as a lauded teacher, advisor and advocate in Israel, where he had returned to live after 1960.
Although Rosenfeld received two degrees from SSA, he very nearly never made it to Chicago. In an interview that appears in James Billups’ 2002 book Faithful Angels, Rosenfeld recalled his roundabout route to SSA: He turned down a prestigious academic assistantship in England to study in Chicago.
Rosenfeld was born in 1922 in Germany to parents with strong Zionist leanings. His family left Nazi-controlled Germany for Palestine in 1933, where he attended school, worked on a kibbutz, and later served in the fledgling military. In 1946, he received a scholarship to the London School of Economics, where he earned certificates in colonial social sciences and in psychiatric social work. He returned to Israel in 1948, just before the War of Independence, where he served as the army’s first mental health officer.
Charged with helping Israeli soldiers better cope with the trauma of war, Rosenfeld was initially at a loss. Although his work in London included clinical training in the city’s best-known hospitals, he often felt unprepared to treat the emotional and psychological stress of soldiers who had so recently suffered through the horror of the Holocaust.
What happened next was the first turning point in his career. “What I did there and then, without having learned it, was to concentrate on helping insensitive bureaucrats get to know the soldiers and their stories,” he says. It was a step towards the philosophy that would guide his life’s work. “By serving any individual well,” he says, “one can contribute to the quality of the services on which they depend—a social worker, by serving one person, also serves the collectives to which the person belongs.”
Rosenfeld arrived at a second turning point while at SSA, when he convinced the faculty that his intellectual ideology, which differed from that of the School, could support his doctoral thesis. “[My professors] generously accommodated me, and clearly seemed to be content with my focus, which was so singularly my own,” he says. “[It] enabled me later to mobilize my own generosity when my students presented me with their individual, professional themes… and avenues of learning.”
When he returned to Israel in 1962, Rosenfeld was immediately hired by the newly established Paul Baerwald School of Social Work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He thrived there, becoming the institution’s first full professor and, as he recalled in Faithful Angels, reveling in “the pioneer atmosphere and sense of mission.”
“We were always politically involved,” he explained in the book, “be it in social policy or in national professional issues.” Rosenfeld quickly rose through the departmental ranks, eventually taking the reins as head of the school.
With more than 100 publications and five books to his name, Rosenfeld has taught, lectured or written about a vast range of topics in social work, from human growth and development to deviance, social theory and social deprivation. He has spoken before the United Nations and was the first winner of the prestigious 1998 Israel Prize for research in social work. He is a founder of the National Council of Schools of Social Work in Israel, the Association of Social Workers and the National Council of the Child in Israel.
But his primary interest—and the subject to which he returns time and again—remains the welfare of those on the margins, whose foothold in the existing social structure is tenuous at best.
“To serve the un-served and the under-served has been and continues to be what I consider the main mission of social work,” Rosenfeld says. “To do so requires one to remain constantly mindful of what clients say they need.”
Today, Rosenfeld is heading the unit for learning from success and ongoing learning in the human services at Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute in Jerusalem, Israel. He says that providers must always be open to changing their approach—creating an environment that encourages ongoing learning and intellectual flexibility.
“The greatest achievement in the field of social work,” he says, “is that it still allows and encourages the ongoing quest of social workers to adapt their craft to the ever-changing world in which they operate.”