Remembering Founding Visionary Dr. RICHARD GELLES

Dr. Richard Gelles headshot
Richard J. Gelles
1946 – 2020

It is with profound sadness that we share that Dr. Richard J. Gelles passed away in June 2020 after a courageous battle with brain cancer.

Dr. Gelles served as Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice from 2001 to 2014 and held the Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence. He was also the Founding Director and Managing Faculty Director for the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research and the Founding Director of the Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence. After more than a decade of administrative work, Dr. Gelles returned to his research with enthusiasm.  

Dr. Gelles is an internationally acclaimed expert in family violence and child welfare. He was identified as #11 on the Top 100 Most Influential Contemporary Social Work Faculty in Thyer, Smith, Osteen & Carter’s 2019 article, “The 100 Most Influential Contemporary Social Work Faculty Assessed by the H-Index” published by Journal of Social Service Review in February 2019. His published work has over 35,000 lifetime citations.

Over his career, Dr. Gelles published 16 books on the topics of family and intimate partner violence, child abuse and neglect, child welfare policy, and social policy. The Violent Home (1974) was the first systematic investigation to provide empirical data on domestic violence, Intimate Violence and Abuse in Families (2017) is currently in its 4th edition, and Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family (1980) has been cited nearly 6,000 times. In The Third Lie (2011), Dr. Gelles put forth an innovative, universal prevention strategy that would benefit children in all economic groups – a ‘Futures Account,’ available to every child born in the United States or who is a legal resident of the United States, once reaching age 18. His most recent book, Out of Harm’s Way: Creating an Effective Child Welfare System (2017) provides a thoughtful, insightful, and incisive discussion of our child welfare system’s continued failure to protect children, and argues that unless children are the central focus of the system, it will continue to harm them. This book, unlike so many others on the same topic, offers real policy solutions for how to fix a chronically broken system. Over his career, Dr. Gelles also published more than 70 journal articles in the scientific, peer-reviewed literature on family and intimate partner violence, child abuse and neglect, and child welfare policy and practice. In January 2020, he was awarded the Society for Social Work & Research’s Social Policy Research Award for his distinguished achievement across his career of research in social policy.

Dr. Gelles was highly influential in the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA), having written the draft legislation that went on to become federal policy with his colleague Cassie Statuto Bevan. At its passage, ASFA was considered the most sweeping change to U.S. adoption and foster care in two decades. It marked a fundamental change in child welfare thinking, with a shift in emphasis toward children’s health and safety concerns. Among other issues, ASFA addressed “foster care drift,” or the phenomenon of children languishing in foster care for years and years without ever achieving permanency. Through ASFA, Dr. Gelles helped put in place the “15/22 Rule,” which requires that States move to terminate parental rights for children who have been in foster care for 15 out of the last 22 months.

Dr. Gelles appeared on television shows for commentary and newspapers have published his op-eds. These news outlets include: Good Morning America, TODAY, PBS Late Night, The John Davidson Show, The Merv Griffin Show, CBS This Morning, CBS News with Bob Schieffer CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dateline, The Wall Street Journal, The Chronicle of Social Change, CNN International, FoxNews, PBS Frontline, NPR, The New Republic, Bleacher Report, Miami Herald, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Cincinnati Enquirer, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and many others.

Dr. Gelles was also an expert witness in many court cases that deal with violence and abuse.

He taught two policy courses for SP2 MSW students, Contemporary Social Policy and Policies for Children & Their Families. In 2000, his teaching was honored with the Excellence for Teaching Award at SP2. Only a few years ago, realizing that the Internet could afford many many more people the opportunity to learn about child welfare social policy, Dr. Gelles created an edX MOOC based on Out of Harm’s Way called “Creating an Effective Child Welfare System.” This free, online course continues to be available to anyone around the world with Internet access.

Aside from Dr. Gelles’ extensive and impactful career in child welfare, his beloved wife Judy, his children David and Jason, and his three grandchildren were his pride and joy. Below are obituaries published for Dr. Richard Gelles in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the New York Times. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer – July 6, 2020

The Washington Post – July 12, 2020

The Boston Globe – July 13, 2020

The New York Times – July 25, 2020