Published in the Fall 2008 issue of SSA Magazine
SSA has had an outsized impact on child welfare issues in Chicago and throughout Illinois since the School was started. Members of SSA's faculty have used research, advocacy, expertise, and close connections to the institutions in the field to improve the foster care system—and even operated programs themselves.
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 to house and nurture children whose parents were unfit or unable to care for them, which at the start of the last century was operated by privately run agencies dependant on charity. It was an era when the Chicago Daily Tribune could write a headline like "Orphans Receive New Shoes," as it did about "shoe day" at the Chicago Orphan Asylum in 1908.
The School worked closely with the Chicago Orphan Asylum, providing expertise for its operation and students for fieldwork. SSA Assistant Professor Ethel Verry had a dual appointment that allowed her to serve as the director of the asylum, and she also staffed the Chicago Council of Social Agencies, an umbrella institution that, like SSA, pushed to organize the private child welfare agencies into an interlocking network that shared expertise and standards.
During these years, SSA was also heavily involved with fighting racial segregation in the private foster care system, which left many African- American children without placement. Abbott and Breckinridge, armed with their studies showing the poor economic and environmental conditions for Chicago's black population and sitting on numerous county, state, and private committees on children's issues, advocated against discrimination of African- American children and for a publicly run system, which they argued could be required to treat all children equally.
SSA took a direct hand in the issue in 1928 as a sponsor and the de facto manager of the Department of Child Placing for Negro Children, a progressive, public/private model to find better options for young black wards of the state. The program's first director, W.W. Burke, was a field instructor at SSA, most of the child welfare workers were students at the School, and Abbott and Breckinridge were key committee members. The program's success—and the steady advocacy of SSA's faculty and others— was a key factor when the State of Illinois assumed responsibility for child welfare during the Depression.
The child welfare system continued to be a focus of the School in the years that followed. Professor Don Pappenfort, for example, led a group of researchers in the late 1960s who conducted a massive national study of the programs offered by more than 2,000 public and private group-care institutions. Since that time, much of SSA's work around child welfare issues has been in partnership with the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. Harold Richman, SSA's former dean and Hermon Dunlap Smith Professor, was the founding director of Chapin Hall, and many of its key researchers over the years have been SSA graduates or faculty members.
"Harold Richman had and continues to have a substantial influence on Chicago, both while at SSA and through Chapin Hall," says John Schuerman, professor emeritus and former associate dean at SSA and faculty associate at Chapin. "SSA and Chapin Hall have been paired together for a long time."
In the early 1980s, for instance, Chapin Hall's Mark Testa, a former SSA faculty member, and SSA graduate Fred Wulczyn authored an influential study that helped refocus reform efforts on caseload overload at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) by finding that length of stay for children in foster care was more of a factor than commonly blamed intake issues. Former SSA professor Mark Courtney was a strong bridge between SSA and Chapin Hall around research concerning foster care issues, as has been Gina Miranda Samuels, an assistant professor at the School.
DCFS has used SSA as a resource in other ways, as well. For example, in response to a DCFS edict in 1994 requiring all supervisors to hold a graduate degree, the School partnered with the department to offer a special program. "It was designed specifically for these supervisors, recognizing that they brought a lot of work experience," says Penny Johnson, SSA's dean of students. "I think it was really useful for DCFS, because the program allowed their supervisors to add this important knowledge in a way that worked with their practice backgrounds."
Tina Rzepnicki, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor at SSA, is one of a long line of faculty members who have worked closely with DCFS. For several years she has been a resource for the department's inspector general's office (run by SSA graduate Denise Kane), where she has collaborated with staff to develop more effective and ethical practices in child welfare. For example, one initiative focuses on improving supervisory and staff performance in programs that serve teen parents who are also wards of the state. Most recently, she has been helping define a new system to reduce errors among caseworkers and supervisors to improve practice, particularly in child protection investigations.
"Through systematic analysis, we have identified multi-level factors that contribute to these problems. Denise Kane presented the data to the state legislature, resulting in a new law that establishes an error reduction team in her office, which is now beginning to develop strategies to address weaknesses within the child welfare system in
Chicago and across the state," Rzepnicki says. "My work now will be to determine how successful this effort is in improving staff performance. Of course, our hope is that ultimately, children and their families will experience better case decision making and increased levels of safety."