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As stories of child abuse, neglect, racial discrimination and mismanagement in New Jersey start to sink in, the School of Social Work has stepped in. Ordered to release their records by a federal court judge last July, New Jersey's Department of Human Services Division of Youth and Family Services now has to contend with newly-appointed Social Work Dean Richard Gelles, who has been in the trenches with a hand-picked team of Penn researchers to provide scientific analysis and expert testimony since the case began. Children "were abused and neglected physically, emotionally and sexually while they were being cared for in the state's custody," Gelles said, noting that "secondary trauma" has been a problem as researchers examine the sometimes horrific reports. "Some of the atrocities in the child welfare system make you want to stand on a mountain and scream," said Robin Mekonnen, a first-year Social Work doctoral candidate and a researcher on the case. "And no one hears you." The court's decision to allow access to 500 children's case files, a strong random sampling of the state's over 9,000 wards, stems from a lawsuit filed three years ago that brought child abuse and deaths within the child welfare system to the forefront. "It's sad it takes a death to warrant that much attention," second-year Social Work doctoral student Staci Peckham noted. "The judge agreed that, to prove the case, one would need scientific evidence," Gelles explained. "It's a pretty horrible picture," he continued, describing the case. "But you can't generalize from that about the treatment of 9,000 children." A second lawsuit, filed under the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act of 1996, alleges that DYFS practiced "race-matching," pairing children with those adoptive parents who appeared to match their race or ethnicity. "One of the cases keeps standing out in my mind," Gelles said. "Not because it was so terrible, but because it was so ludicrous." Finding a home for "two children with Hispanic surnames," the state placed its wards, who spoke only English, with a "family [that] spoke only Spanish," according to Gelles. "If you're going to make that kind of mistake," Gelles said, "one can only imagine what you would do with more serious" cases. While researchers are often "treated to anecdotes" according to Gelles, since comprehensive data information systems are rare in government departments, the opening of New Jersey's files provides a rare academic opportunity as well as a chance to work for concrete change. Unlike typical social work programs, which tend to turn out "clinical social workers [who perform] a sort of retail social change," Gelles sees this project as an opportunity to begin "to use the academic and research expertise of the school and the University to bring about wholesale social change." Melissa Coleman, associate director of development and alumni relations at the school, agreed that this is "not your father's social work." "It's not typical of what social workers do -- that's why it's so exciting," she said. "This is the school's niche," Gelles said. "We will continue to turn out clinicians, but they will be clinicians who understand evidence," Gelles said, noting that "Penn students... have a tendency to rise into management positions rather quickly." Meanwhile, this case may well serve as a "template for the other 49 states and the District of Columbia." "And we are beginning to gear up for another state and another lawsuit," Gelles announced, demonstrating the School of Social Work's continuing commitment to sweeping social change.

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