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Donahue and DeFelice Professor of Social Work Ruth McRoy: “I was impressed not only with the teaching and research [at GSSW], but the whole culture — the concern for social justice, the openness to new experiences.” (Photo by Rose Lincoln)

‘GSSW Opened Up a New World for Me’

Ruth McRoy had all but retired from academia, but now she is enjoying an ‘encore performance’ at Boston College
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By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor
Published: Apil 15, 2010
No encores in life? Don't tell that to Ruth McRoy.

Five years ago, she was wrapping up an accomplished career in academia. She had her retirement party, and even received a ceremonial rocking chair.

But now, here she is in her first year as the inaugural Donahue and DeFelice Professor in the Graduate School of Social Work - having assisted in the original search for candidates to fill the chair - and continuing her groundbreaking work on child welfare and adoption. McRoy also has embraced GSSW's culture, including the school's international and diversity initiatives, broadening her professional and personal perspectives in the process.

"It's been wonderful here. GSSW's partnerships and programs offer such rich teaching and research opportunities," says McRoy, a self-described "university brat" whose parents - her mother an English professor, her father a fiscal administrator - worked at several different colleges during her childhood. "I feel GSSW has opened up a new world for me, quite literally.

"You know the phrase 'encore career'? Well, this is an 'encore performance' for me, except that I am able to build on work I've done and also do some different things."

In McRoy - formerly a research professor and the Ruby Lee Piester Centennial Professor Emerita at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work - GSSW has a senior faculty member with an impressive record of achievements. She has authored or co-authored eight books and more than 100 articles and book chapters on child welfare issues, received major research funding from public and private agencies, and earned prestigious honors from Black Administrators in Child Welfare and the Society for Social Work and Research, among others.

"Over her distinguished career, Ruth has made a huge impact on social work education, research, and practice," says GSSW Dean Alberto Godenzi, who was instrumental in forging McRoy's connection to GSSW. "Her passion for change and social justice are complemented by a commitment to rigorous scholarship and teaching. Ruth will undoubtedly take the school to new heights."

McRoy's magnum opus is the longitudinal study of open adoptions she has conducted with Harold Grotevant for more than a quarter of a century. Open adoptions - where the birth mother and the adoptive family may have contact and may know each other's identities - were once fairly common in the US, but declined when laws requiring the sealing of adoption records were introduced during the 20th century.

So when McRoy and Grotevant - both on the Texas-Austin faculty at the time - began evaluating a Texas social services provider's open-adoption program in 1984, they were entering largely uncharted territory.

"The idea of the birth mother and adoptive parents knowing each other's histories was new, and rather controversial," says McRoy. "There were a lot of strong feelings for and against it, but nothing in the way of data on the outcomes of the various forms of open adoptions - which might involve full disclosure and ongoing contact between birth and adoptive parents, for example, or a more limited contact arrangement."

Starting with a small sample of 17 adoptive families and 15 birth mothers, McRoy and Grotevant eventually expanded their study to a national scale, involving 190 adoptive families and 168 birth mothers - the adopted children are now adults with kids of their own, she notes. 

Looking over 25 years of findings, McRoy says, she and Grotevant have found "the rewards of open adoption outweigh the risks." The key is "learning what works for a family, how social services agencies can play a role in providing this support," she says, and how state laws and policies evolve.

"Open adoption may have its particular sets of challenges, but there are plenty of other complex family situations we see these days - multigenerational households, blended families, parents who never married but maintain a relationship. It's important to weigh these issues at a time when there are some 123,000 children in foster care throughout the US awaiting placement."

Grotevant, who now teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, says his fellow Libra displays all the virtues of her astrological sign.

"She is always one to take a balanced approach to the controversy du jour. She openly listens to all sides and considers what we know from research and practice experience before taking stands.

"This balance also has extended to our personal and family relationships, with each other and our colleagues. We work hard, but we also play hard. We have supported each other as our families have grown and changed over the years.  It's that sense of connection and belonging that make being with Ruth so special."

McRoy's ties to GSSW go back four years, when she served as a consultant for the school's research infrastructure and diversity initiative programs. In 2008, Godenzi asked her to serve on the search committee for the Donahue and DeFelice Chair - and later on, to consider taking the job herself.

"I'd become familiar with many aspects of GSSW and BC," she says. "I was impressed not only with the teaching and research, but the whole culture - the concern for social justice, the openness to new experiences. So that led me to say 'I'd be honored to be considered.'"

McRoy speaks enthusiastically about her new post, whether teaching ("I tell students to go do what you're passionate about, and do something that will make a difference"), outreach and partnerships ventures - she cites recent visits with the Haitian Multicultural Center, the Home for Little Wanderers and Catholic Charities, among others - and GSSW's global initiatives.

"Being a faculty advisor to GSSW students doing placements in South Africa, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Australia is a great learning experience. When I've visited other countries, I always try to take back something that I can build on. I feel there are so many possibilities to explore here.

As for her retirement gift? "There are stuffed animals sitting in that rocking chair," laughs McRoy, "and I'm planning my next adventure."