Richard J. Gelles, professor of Social Policy and Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence, died at home on June 26 at age 73 from brain cancer.
Gelles worked at Penn from 1998 until his retirement in 2014 and served as the dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice from 2003 to 2014.
“He never shied away from changing how things have always been done in order that we may all do them better,” Penn President Amy Gutmann told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Gelles arrived at Penn in 1998 from the University of Rhode Island after conducting research on family violence at the school since 1973 and serving as both the chair and dean of Rhode Island's College of Arts and Sciences.
Prior to becoming dean of SP2, Gelles served as director of the Doctoral Program in Penn's School of Social Work from 1999 to 2001 and interim Dean at the School of Social Work from 2001 to 2003.
In his 13 years of tenure as the dean of SP2, Gelles financially bolstered the school, which was overspending its financial aid budget and struggling in the face of fluctuating numbers of applications from year to year, up to a $1.2 million variation in tuition money coming — or failing to come — to the school each year.
He also led the renaming from the School of Social Work in 2004, to its current name, the School of Social Policy & Practice.
“The school is in a much better shape today than when he took it over,” former SP2 Professor Ram Cnaan told The Daily Pennsylvanian in 2014. “Academically, student-wise, budget-wise — on all fronts, much better.”
Gelles spearheaded fundraising efforts at Penn, raising over $33.6 million for the school from 2005-2012 and launching the Master of Science in Nonprofit Leadership program in 2005. The following year, he helped create the Master of Science in Social Policy program in an effort to attract more students to the school. In 2007, he initiated the Doctorate in Clinical Social Work — a first of its kind program in the U.S.
An accomplished author, Gelles wrote or co-wrote a total of 26 books and over 200 articles regarding familial violence. One of his most influential books published in 1974, titled 'The Violent Home,' is regarded as the first empirical systematic investigation of family violence and served as the forefront of future discussions of family violence social policy, the Inquirer reported.
Gelles received accolades and recognition for the impact of his work in increasing awareness of child abuse. His novel, titled 'The Book of David,' which discussed the implications of reuniting foster care children with their biological families, helped lead to the passage of Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. The act requires criminal and background checks for foster care parents and works to improve the safety of foster care children.
The act included a provision known as the 15/22 rule, which meant if a child had spent 15 of the previous 22 months in foster care, states were required to terminate the biological parents’ rights and the child could be put up for adoption. The rule made it so more foster children found adoptive homes.
He also received the Award for Career Achievement in Research from the American Professional Science on the Abuse of Children in 1999.
"In and of itself, such fearlessness is an excellent quality to have for any scholar, teacher, advocate, and leader. But, in Rich, that quality empowered the greatest of purposes: that of safeguarding the most vulnerable members of society," Gutmann told the Inquirer.
Gelles earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Bates College, a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Rochester, and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of New Hampshire.
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