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Richard Gelles, scholar of family violence and child-welfare system, dies at 73

Richard Gelles and his wife, Judy, in 2010.
Richard Gelles and his wife, Judy, in 2010.Conrad Erb

A leading scholar of domestic violence and the child-welfare system, Richard Gelles broke with many colleagues and reversed his own longstanding beliefs when he declared in the mid-1990s that it was more important to protect children from abuse than to preserve families.

“There’s this common belief that blood is thicker than water, that all children belong with their parents,” he told the Globe in 1996, when he was a University of Rhode Island professor. “We need to think less about family preservation and more about child protection.”

For most of his career, Dr. Gelles had held the opposite view, believing that it was best to keep families together, with children removed from violent, neglectful, or exploitative households only as a last resort. But by 1996, when he published his book-length essay “The Book of David,” he had changed his mind, swayed by what he described as “the accumulation of 20 years of research.”

Dr. Gelles, who formerly taught at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice, which he led for more than a decade as dean, died June 26 at his home in Philadelphia. He was 73. His son David said the cause was brain cancer.

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A prolific and high-profile sociologist, Dr. Gelles wrote more than two dozen books, testified before Congress, and gave evidence as an expert witness.

A native of Newton, he conducted pioneering studies on family violence in the 1970s and later worked to shape public policy, notably helping draft the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, considered the most significant change in federal child-welfare policy in nearly two decades. The law was partly informed by his view that the child-welfare system was biased in favor of biological parents, with an emphasis on reuniting families that too often resulted in further abuse.

“All things being equal, I think it would be great for kids to be brought up by caring biological parents. And two of them,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1995. “But that doesn’t mean by definition that every biological parent is equipped to be a caring, nurturing parent. Some kids do better in foster homes; some kids do better in adopted homes. There are some households where kids ought not to be.”

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Dr. Gelles marshaled an array of statistics to make his case. He found that of the 2,000 children who are killed nationwide each year by their parents or caretakers, half died after the state got involved, often after children spent time in the foster-care system.

He also drew on harrowing anecdotes, including a few real-life cases that inspired “The Book of David,” about an infant given the pseudonym David Edwards. The boy remained with his parents even after they lost custody of an older sister because of abuse, and died of suffocation at 15 months.

Dr. Gelles chronicled the boy’s story “without painting David’s parents as malicious or blatantly psychotic,” psychologist Michael Lamb wrote in the Journal of Marriage and Family. “Indeed, it is their ordinariness that makes David’s fate so sad and the dilemmas so compelling.”

Other reviewers criticized Dr. Gelles for altering facts about David’s background, turning the character into a “composite” drawn from several cases. Opponents argued that family preservation was safer than foster care and accused Dr. Gelles of advocating a system in which children were unnecessarily taken from their families.

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He remained steadfast in his views, taking a sabbatical from his professorship at the University of Rhode Island to work as a congressional fellow on the House Ways and Means Committee. Dr. Gelles “shaped the principles that drove” the Adoption and Safe Families Act, said Cassie Statuto Bevan, a Penn colleague and former committee staffer who summed up his views this way: “The child shouldn’t have to suffer at the altar of family preservation.”

The act overhauled 1980 legislation that called on state agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together before permanently placing a child in the foster-care system. Dr. Gelles and other supporters argued that caseworkers seemed to be putting all of their efforts into reunifying families, with little consideration for safety.

The resulting bill, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, asserted that the “paramount concern” of child-protection efforts was the health and safety of children, and established shorter timelines for children to be separated from their families and placed in new homes.

Critics said that the legislation disproportionately split up poor families and families of color, and the law remains controversial. In a Washington Post essay last year, physician and historian Mical Raz wrote that “adoption cannot be the solution to the social problems our underfunded child-welfare system confronts.”

In general, however, Dr. Gelles viewed adoption as a positive outcome, while acknowledging that the legislation he favored had trade-offs.

“We’ll have to accept the fact that we’re going to sweep in families who we in the past wouldn’t have involved,” he told the PBS program “Frontline” in 2003. “We’re going to terminate parental rights in the past we wouldn’t have terminated. We’re going to remove children from a home that in the past we wouldn’t have. And that is the price tag for child safety.”

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The older of two sons, Richard James Gelles was born in Newton on July 7, 1946. His father owned a necktie business, which Dr. Gelles briefly led when family members came down sick while he was in graduate school.

“I did it for a couple of weeks,” he said in a 1982 Globe interview of leaving his graduate studies, “but then my father pressured me to go back.”

He turned toward sociology while at Bates College in Maine, where he played second base on a baseball team that also featured future sportscaster Bryant Gumbel. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1968 and a master’s in sociology from the University of Rochester in 1971.

Two years later he received his doctorate from the University of New Hampshire, where he studied under sociologist Murray Straus, a pioneer in the study of family violence. The two became frequent collaborators, co-writing “Behind Closed Doors” (1980), a seven-year study of domestic abuse, with Suzanne Steinmetz.

Dr. Gelles’s early works also included “The Violent Home” (1974), considered the first systematic investigation into abuse between husbands and wives, and a 1975 paper that advocated new research into the “social construction” of child abuse, including the gray areas in which abuse may or may not be identified.

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After starting his teaching career at Rhode Island, Dr. Gelles joined Penn in 1998. Three years later he was named interim dean of what was then the university’s school of social work, which he renamed the School of Social Policy & Practice. He created new degree programs and was credited with stabilizing the school’s finances before stepping down as dean in 2014.

His wife of 48 years, the former Judy Isacoff, was an artist, photographer, and filmmaker who died in March of a ruptured brain aneurysm.

She was buried the same day that their son David signed up Dr. Gelles for hospice care at home for the brain cancer he had been diagnosed with in June 2019.

In addition to David, of Chevy Chase, Md., he leaves another son, Jason of Santa Monica, Calif.; a brother, Robert of Needham; and three grandchildren.

“In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I learned what it means to care for a dying parent in isolation, while still grieving for another parent,” David Gelles wrote in an essay last month for CNN, where he works as an executive producer.


Material from The Washington Post was used in this obituary.