By Susan White
A nationally recognized child welfare expert and the architect of innovative reforms in the fields of child protection and foster care is bringing his research and professional leadership expertise to the Tar Heel state.
Mark Testa, Ph.D., a professor and director of the Children and Family Research Center at the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will join UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work in January as the first Sandra Reeves Spears and John B. Turner Distinguished Professor.
“I am so pleased that Dr. Testa has accepted our offer to join the faculty,” said School Dean Jack M. Richman. “Mark is a gifted teacher and his strengths will greatly enhance our School, the University and our ability to serve the people of North Carolina.”
Testa said he is equally thrilled to be associated with the School, which he said he has always considered one of the country’s “centers for child welfare research.” He is also eager, he said, to work with students and share his experiences, including lessons he has learned over the years in reforming public child welfare systems and increasing opportunities for children in foster care.
Testa brings to UNC more than 30 years of research and service, most of which has focused on improving the lives of at-risk children and families. Perhaps most notable is his work in Illinois, which led to a significant overhaul of that state’s Department of Children and Family Services and ultimately, a model for national legislation.
For years, more Illinois children were removed from homes and placed in foster care and more cases were assigned to state child welfare workers than the nation as a whole. The state’s track record, which included 52,000 in foster care by the late 1990s and caseworkers managing three times the number of recommended cases, was highly criticized. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pushed for a major overhaul of the existing federal consent decree, charging that the system was failing to protect and care for children in state custody.
Testa’s innovative research helped turn the state around. In 1994, he was appointed Illinois’ research director for the Department of Children and Family Services. His leadership and policy analysis led to a federal child welfare demonstration that enabled the state to assist relatives who were named legal guardians of children formerly under their foster care. Guardians were given financial subsidies, funding that had not previously been available to relative caregivers.
The demonstration and its companion legislation helped move children out of the foster care system more quickly and into permanent homes. According to Illinois’ Children and Family Research Center, by 2003, the number of children in foster care had dropped nearly 62 percent to less than 20,000. The results were so successful, similar demonstrations were replicated in Tennessee and Wisconsin. Congress acted on the findings from these demonstrations and created the kinship guardianship assistance program as part of the “Fostering Connections” Act that was signed into federal law last year.
Testa recently completed a book, Fostering Accountability (Oxford University Press), with John Poertner on the reform experiences in Illinois. He hopes the lessons learned will also form the backbone for a collaborative research project at UNC. Policymakers and academics in Illinois, Maryland, and North Carolina will have the opportunity to work with UNC School of Social Work faculty, including research associate professor Dean Duncan, on how to further improve child welfare and child practice, Testa said.
The new professor will remain actively involved in other states. Testa, who is helping states to adapt to the new national foster care legislation, was recently named as the independent verification agent under a federal consent decree for Baltimore’s child welfare system. For more than 20 years, the Maryland city has been under federal court oversight to improve services and care for children in state custody. Testa will ensure the city system follows required standards.
With Testa’s arrival to UNC, Richman has also approved for the School of Social Work to be included among a list of national agencies affiliated with the Fostering Connections Resource Center. This center, which spawned from the federal foster care law, offers states access to data, training information and research experts.
“I think it’s good for us in that it highlights (the School) as a resource, and it creates opportunities for our doctoral students and faculty to engage in some pretty interesting and new child welfare work,” Testa said.
Testa has been widely honored over the years for his academic and professional achievements. He is the recipient of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Adoption 2002 Excellence Award for Applied Scholarship and Research on kinship care and permanence. In 2004, he received the Blue Bow Award for research and leadership in improving systems of care for children from the Children’s Home and Aid Society of Illinois, and in 2006, he was nominated by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and received the Angel in Adoption Award from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.
Long-term, Testa hopes to help the School engage in an even more active role, locally and nationally, in child welfare reform efforts. One of his goals is to establish a policy institute from which an education and training program would be created to merge the best in foster care research with the best in foster care practices.
“We have to become smarter in how we serve families and recognize when child welfare should be more of a support system rather than one that disrupts lives by needlessly removing children into foster care,” he said. “We also need to use the research and knowledge within the university system to improve the quality of policy and practice.”
Such efforts, Testa said, could offer some real solutions to North Carolina and other public child welfare systems.
“The challenge is to improve the evidence base for what works best in each of these systems and translate the knowledge into more effective policies and practices for children and families in North Carolina and across the nation as a whole,” Testa said.