Dr. Alan Dettlaff knew he wanted to work with children as long as he could remember. He contemplated majoring in education and then special education but knew deep down they were not the right choice. He left his home in Chicago and came to Texas for a change of pace. One night, he watched a reporter on the news who went on a ride-along with a case worker for Child Protective Services. Her story struck a chord, and he knew the path he needed to take.
“I changed my major to Social Work the next day,” Dettlaff said who went on to earn his master’s and doctorate in social work from the University of Texas at Arlington.
Today, he is the new Dean of the Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW) at the University of Houston.
The journey might have started with the fact that his typesetter dad and hairdresser mom divorced when he was 10. He wanted to help children through their pains, wanted to make things right. His first job in the field gave him the opportunity.
For six years, he worked with Child Protective Services—the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services in Ft. Worth—investigating child and sexual abuse cases. As his career in the child welfare system opened up, he focused on racial disparities, improving outcomes for LGBTQ youth and addressing the unique needs of immigrant families. The disproportionality of Latino children in the child welfare system intrigued him to no end.
“I found that African American children were over represented in the foster care system, but Latino children weren’t even though they had many of the same risk factors, poverty being the greatest.”
Even so, they were not getting the services they needed. His research helped develop policy, for example, where an undocumented family member can become the primary caretaker of a child who gets taken from his parents—in lieu of going to a foster family. Children weren’t released to undocumented family members before.
“It reduces trauma of separation from their parents if they can remain with family in a given community,” he explains.
What Dettlaff learned was this: those who fall into the child welfare, foster care or other state systems can become part of dismal statistics. Children of color fall through the cracks even more. Yet he believes professional training, compassion and learning culturally responsive practice can make a difference in the plight of children made vulnerable through physical, mental or sexual abuse.
Finding his way to Houston
Dettlaff shifted to academia, serving as an associate professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago for several years. “I fell in love with teaching.”
Becoming a dean was a dream. “I didn’t want to work for just any university,” he said. “I wanted an institution that effects change—and offered potential to build on my experience.”
The University of Houston was that institution. The GCSW mission statement helped seal the deal:
The Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW) provides exceptional education for advanced social work practice, research and leadership through teaching, advancing knowledge and community engagement to achieve social, economic and political justice.
“It says to achieve social justice not aspire to it,” explained Dettlaff who became Dean in the spring. “Here they mean it. You don’t put the statement on a coffee mug. You live it.”
It is the only college of social work in the world to have a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Jody Williams, as part of the faculty. Award-winning social work researcher and #1 New York Times best-selling author Brené Brown is also a faculty member.
Dettlaff’s own research and work with professional organizations is pivotal. For example, he serves as chair of the Commission on Educational Policy for the Council on Social Work Education, a research and policy association examining social justice issues at local, state, national and international levels. They disseminate the latest news on policy and research via weekly emails to their Listserve of more than 1,000 members.
Dr. Ilze Earner, Associate Professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, City University of New York, met Dettlaff when the Migration and Child Welfare National Network was being set up by the American Humane Society—Child Protection in Chicago. Over time, she collected data with Dettlaff to identify how many immigrant families, children and youth come to the attention of child welfare, the reasons they become involved and whether services offered are effective or not.
“It has been very rewarding to see some of the policy changes that have occurred, program initiatives undertaken and overall recognition in child welfare services that immigrant families have special needs,” Earner said.
Graduates can change the Status Quo
The GCSW is one of the nation's most successful social work programs and is poised to improve its standing. Dettlaff explained, “My goal is to get it to the next level, past the up-and-coming and arrive. Make it a destination.”
The GCSW is on its way. More than 3,000 students have received their MSW degree. According to the department website, dual master’s degrees can be obtained in Business Administration and Public Health, or a Juris Doctorate. Four specializations are offered: Health and Behavioral Health, Social Work with Latinos, Political Social Work and Individualized Specialization. In addition, there are international travel courses in England, Scotland, Costa Rica, Hong Kong and mainland China.
“The curriculum prepares students to make a change in people’s lives,” Dettlaff said.
Recently inducted into the 2015 class of Fellows of the Society for Social Work and Research, he leads by example.
“Alan has genuine concern for people especially those who are vulnerable for any number of reasons and may experience various forms of institutional abuse or oppression,” Earner said. “His premise is that everyone has dignity and worth, and it is the responsibility of social workers to ensure that this is the starting point—not sometimes, not maybe but always recognize that social justice is not an end goal but a daily practice.”
Working with children as victims of abuse or of state systems might take a toll on many. Dettlaff holds strong to his belief—those who pursue social work have a passion for the field and can reach that goal of effecting change and achieving social justice.
“You’re protecting children from abuse and neglect,” Dettlaff said. “Your role is to keep families together and offer services that reduce risk. You’re part of the solution to the problem. You can change the status quo.”