Richard Gelles, a well-known sociologist, was one of the country's primary defenders of family preservation, the practice of reuniting birth parents with their children, even if they had been abused.
But after Dr. Gelles had examined the terrible deaths of many children by their parents, including a 15-month-old whose mother choked him to death, and he turned around.
He brought his outrage to Washington in the mid-1990s and helped develop groundbreaking laws that said a child's safety should replace attempts to reunite a family. The new law made it easier for children who were in care because their birth parents still had custody of being given up for adoption.
Dr. Gelles died on June 26th under hospice care at his home in Philadelphia. He was 73 years old. His son David Gelles said the cause was brain cancer.
Dr. Gelles, who taught at the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania and served there as Dean for more than a decade, was one of the world's leading scientists on family violence and child welfare.
During his four-decade career, he wrote 26 books, was an expert in numerous legal cases and made a significant contribution to the national discussion on domestic violence. In 1984, Esquire magazine called him a select handful of "men and women under forty who change America". He was 38 at the time and had already written nine books.
Among his most famous was "The Violent Home: A Study of Physical Aggression Between Husbands and Wives" (1974) based on his dissertation, which was the first systematic study of spouse abuse. In later editions, he examined the abuse of older people and the violence of adolescents against their parents.
His "Behind Closed Doors" (1980), written with Murray A. Straus and Suzanne Steinmetz and based on a seven-year study of more than 2,000 American families, showed how thoroughly domestic violence was woven into the structure of family life.
"Because of the pioneering work of these authors," Jeff Greenfield wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "we know that abused children become abused parents, that violent criminals are usually abused as children, and that the dimensions of domestic violence are greater." than we ever imagined. "
Dr. For many years, Gelles has been a strong supporter of family cohesion, as required by federal law and social policy, even when child relief organizations knew that the parents were abusive.
But his research and a number of shocking cases of child abuse have convinced him that some parents were not suitable to be parents.
In "The Book of David" (1996), the story of a mother who choked her 15-month-old son, Dr. Gelles, how the family preservation model and the children's aid organization "David" failed – the facts of the case were actually a mixture of several such incidents – and thousands of other children. Statistics he quoted included: Half of the 2,000 children killed each year by their parents or caregivers across the country die, despite government officials monitoring the families.
"Rich was an apologetic critic of the child support system," said Mary M. Cavanaugh, dean of the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, in an interview. "He believed that children were at risk of further abuse and death due to unbearable compliance with family preservation guidelines."
The story of David helped Dr. Gelles crystallized his view that the rights of the child should outweigh the ideal of family preservation.
Critics stuck to its use of composites to question its conclusion; Being removed from a family and being left in foster care often had its own negative consequences. The controversy is still raging today.
"He wasn't a beloved guy," said Dr. Cavanaugh. "But he didn't mind being unpopular. He wasn't afraid to tell the truth."
Dr. Gelles, who was a professor at the University of Rhode Island at the time, took a Sabbath year and went to Washington to work as a fellow on the House Ways and Means Committee. There he played a key role in drafting the groundbreaking Adoption and Family Protection Act of 1997.
This law superseded the 1980 law, which required states to make "reasonable efforts" to reunite families before they were admitted to foster care. The new law states that if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months, states have to terminate the birth parents' rights in order for the child to be released for adoption.
Until then, there was no time limit at all, and children could languish in foster families up to their age. The new legislation, signed by President Bill Clinton, allowed more children to be adopted.
"Rich's criticism of the child welfare system has not only shaped public order indelibly," said Dr. Cavanaugh, "but his work has protected and saved the lives of countless children."
Richard James Gelles was born on July 7, 1946 in Newton, Massachusetts. His father Sidney made and sold ties. His mother, Clara (Goldberg) Gelles, was an artist, potter and housewife.
He attended Bates College in Maine, where he developed a passion for sociology. After graduating in 1968, he received his Masters in Sociology from the University of Rochester in 1971 and his PhD in Sociology from the University of New Hampshire in 1973.
In New Hampshire, he studied with Dr. Straus and they became frequent employees. Dr. Straus, who is considered the father of the field of family violence research, found that people are more likely to be attacked by their families than by strangers, which has fundamentally changed the idea of crime.
Dr. Gelles married photographer and artist Judy Isacoff in 1971. She died of a broken brain aneurysm in March. In addition to his son David, Dr. Gelles another son, Jason. a brother, Robert; and three grandchildren.
After teaching at the University of Rhode Island, Dr. Gelles 1998 to the Faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. Three years later, he was appointed interim dean of the then School of Social Work at the university, which he renamed School of Social Policy and Training.
He also served as a consultant to the National Football League and the U.S. Army on domestic violence issues.
The ringtone on his cell phone was the theme music of "The Magnificent Seven".