SSA Professor Mark Courtney, a child welfare expert whose interest in social work research began when he was a group care leader, is receiving one of the profession’s highest honors, The Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR)’s Distinguished Career Achievement Award. The award will be presented at the organization’s annual conference, January 14-18, 2015, in New Orleans, LA.
Recipients of the Distinguished Career Achievement Awards have cumulative career accomplishments in social work research that have set them apart as their contributions have advanced social work research and its utilization.
“The most notable characteristic of Mark’s research is its impact on child welfare policy and research for young people between 18 and 21 who are aging out of foster care,” said Jeanne Marsh, the George Herbert Jones Distinguished Service Professor in SSA. “A number of states have changed their policies on the basis of his work. His work has had an agenda setting impact, which is highly valued at SSA and in the University.”
Courtney worked for five years with youth who were in foster care. “We would have celebrations when they reached 18, which were bitter sweet,” he recalled. “It troubled me a great deal, because, while on the one hand the youth were celebrating their freedom, they also were not prepared for the life ahead of them.
“I went to graduate school to do research on how we could improve the transition. That’s what really drives my work,” he explained.
Courtney, who received a BA from the University of California, Berkeley, returned there to receive his Ph.D. and M.S.W. from its School of Social Welfare. He also received an M.A. in clinical psychology from the John F. Kennedy University.
His academic career includes appointments at the University of Wisconsin (1992-2000), the University of Washington (2007-2010) as well as the University of Chicago. He served as Director of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago from 2001 to 2006 while he was a member of the SSA faculty.
“Mark Courtney is a profoundly knowledgeable scholar. He has perhaps the greatest breadth and understanding of child welfare issues of anyone in our field,” said Edwina S. Uehara, SSA PhD, ’87, professor and Ballmer Endowed Dean in Social Work School of Social Work, the University of Washington. “He is a true mentor—generous and generative, focused on supporting the emerging generation of child welfare scholars and professionals.”
Courtney, the author of numerous papers and while at Chapin Hall, was author of the 2007 report Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, a study that led to changes in federal law and an expansion of services to foster youth after they turn 18. The study included Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. Illinois was the only one of these states to provide care for the youth after age 18.
The study found that odds of completing at least one year of college were about 3.5 times higher for the young adults from Illinois than for the young adults from the other two states. Each additional year of care increased earnings by 17 percent and women who remained in care longer were less likely to become pregnant.
In October 2008, the US Congress passed an act permitting states to continue care for foster children past the age of 18 and receive federal assistance. Courtney testified in Congressional hearings about the value of the change and relied on the results of the Midwest study to make his case. So far, 18 states have changed their regulations to permit care for foster children past the age of 18. “In each of these states, evidence from the Midwest study was influential in making the case for the change in policy,” he said.
Courtney continues his work on adult functioning of former foster children, as well as experimental evaluation of independent living services for foster youth, and the influence of juvenile courts on the operation of the child welfare system.
“What I like about being at SSA and the University is the interdisciplinary nature of our work. I can consult with economists, experts on law, and of course work with Chapin Hall. And I have great doctoral students as well,” he said.