Edith Abbott, PhD 1905

Juvenile justice was of particular interest to Edith Abbott, PhD 1905, the School of Social Service Administration’s first dean, and remains a focus of SSA’s work today.(UChicago Photographic Archive, apf1-00003, University of Chicago Library)

Youth at risk, revisited

The first School of Social Service Administration dissertation presaged a century of scholarship on social work.

Certain passages in Helen Rankin Jeter’s 1922 dissertation on the Chicago Juvenile Court have contemporary resonance. Jeter, AM 1920, PhD 1924, identifies the problems that precede children into legal trouble: those “of immigrant adjustment, of poverty, of the broken, the degraded, and the crowded home, of school and neighborhood neglect, and only secondarily and to a very slight extent, of the unmanageable child in the midst of favorable circumstances.”

The Chicago Juvenile Court, established in 1899, was the first court of its kind in the country, and Jeter’s study earned her the first doctorate degree granted by the School of Social Service Administration after its 1920 merger with the University of Chicago. The school had operated since 1908, including a previous affiliation with the University.

The court, Jeter found, too often overlooked such broad social causes of delinquency. Nearly a century later, Jeter’s successors at the School of Social Service Administration echo her concerns about the fate of children in the juvenile justice system, highlighting the roles that poverty and institutional racism play in determining whose children end up before the court.

While unmistakably a document of its own era, Jeter’s history-making dissertation presages much that would characterize the intervening century of graduate-level work at SSA: attention to societal forces on individual lives, scrutiny of institutions like the juvenile court, and the particular subject matter of children’s justice and welfare.

The new partnership between SSA and the 30-year-old University was an unusual one for the time. It required the vision of pioneering scholars—scholars who, in another rare circumstance of the era, were women. Even before they had the right to vote, they were helping to establish an enduring field of study: Sophonisba Breckinridge, PhM 1897, PhD 1901, JD 1904; Grace Abbott, PhM 1909; and her sister, Edith Abbott, PhD 1905, who would become the SSA’s first dean.

That work, said current SSA dean and Emily Klein Gidwitz Professor Deborah Gorman-Smith in her 2019 Aims of Education address, included “redefining the social work curriculum, emphasizing that the field needed to focus on public responsibility rather than private donations; and that social work training had to be rigorous and systematic.”

It was a field, in other words, worthy of graduate-level study and best situated in a university environment to combine theory and practice, and to spark interdisciplinary insights. In the century since the merger, SSA’s scholars have worked within the broad vision of Breckinridge and the Abbotts on poverty, violence prevention, employment, immigration, health disparities, family welfare, and more.

The juvenile justice and child welfare issues Jeter confronted in her dissertation, too, still command the attention of SSA students and faculty, including Gorman-Smith, who directs the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention. Naturally scholars’ approaches have evolved with particular challenges of the times. Jeter was alert to disparities that affected immigrant families and children who had recently arrived in the United States; today’s scholars emphasize the role of systemic racism in the issues they study, including in the juvenile justice system.

The very notion inherent in the Chicago Juvenile Court’s creation—that children and adolescents belong in a distinct criminal category—has wavered for decades. As a result, social work on juvenile justice issues often has been marginalized, “overshadowed by a focus of being tough on crime,” says Gorman-Smith.

The notorious concern in the 1990s about young “superpredators”—a term applied most often to Black teens—entrenched the idea that childhood and adolescence were no defense. Many states, including Illinois, allow juveniles to be charged as adults when accused of serious crimes such as murder and sexual assault.

Rather than devise a legal support system along the lines Jeter advocated for, focused on discipline and rehabilitation for young offenders, “we started again to charge young people as adults, and to put them in adult facilities,” says Durrell Washington, a doctoral student at SSA. He studies “the ways that poverty and societal structures, most notably racism, shape ‘juvenile delinquency.’” Youth of color are disproportionately represented in all aspects of the juvenile justice system, adds Washington, whose research aims to better understand neighborhoods as a means of illuminating violence and recidivism among young people.

Once a tough-on-crime mindset took hold, Washington says, social workers’ role diminished—today they account for less than 20 percent of jobs in the juvenile justice system. “We need to reclaim our stake in this system,” Washington contends. He sees signs the pendulum may be swinging back, giving Jeter’s early research renewed relevance as a historical reference point.

A “return to this view of children as children, and adolescents, frankly, as children” has gained currency, agrees Mark Courtney, the Samuel Deutsch Professor and editor of the flagship SSA journal Social Service Review. Even young adults, some believe, lack “the neuro development to regulate their emotions in stressful conditions.” The concept of “emerging adulthood,” rooted in research on brain development, has prompted support for extending protections for juveniles in the justice system well into their 20s.

Jurisdictional differences around the country suggest little consensus on these issues, Washington says. There are efforts in some places to keep children out of institutions, for example, while others continue to imprison young people. The prevailing philosophy, as Courtney sees it, should be to treat young people in trouble—often poor, estranged from their families, shuffled between foster homes and institutions—as “our children,” for whom society has assumed collective responsibility. He sees glimmers of movement in that direction. Developmental research has shifted the debate enough to create excitement about a “return to a process of engagement with young people that looks more like what the original juvenile court looked like than what we have today.”

In this are echoes of Jeter and her dissertation-launching doctoral-level study at SSA: attention to the root causes of delinquency and hopes for the preventive power of social work. Jeter’s subsequent career, which spanned scholarship and public service with the US government, the United Nations, and the Russell Sage Foundation, demonstrates the kind of social work she believed in: evidence-based, analytical, aimed at strengthening our social institutions for the welfare of all.