Internationally renowned child trauma and human rights scholar Theresa Betancourt joins the Boston College School of Social Work as the inaugural Salem Professor in Global Practice. Her pioneering, long-term study of child soldiers and other war-affected youth in Sierra Leone has set a standard for research and programs in childhood trauma, recovery, and resiliency. (Chris Soldt)

Theresa S. Betancourt, whose groundbreaking research has laid bare the ravages of war on children, their families and communities, has joined Boston College’s School of Social Work as the inaugural Salem Professor in Global Practice, Dean Gautam Yadama has announced.

Betancourt joins Boston College from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where she spent 11 years as an assistant and associate professor of child health and human rights and directed the Research Program on Children and Global Adversity, studying the emotional trauma experienced by former child soldiers and examining how war-affected young men and woman can go on to live meaningful and productive lives.

"Professor Betancourt's research is truly global in scale, but focused on what matters most: the well-being of children, families and communities, particularly those devastated by the effects of war and conflict," said Yadama. "Theresa's pioneering work in mental health and the design and evaluation of interventions will add a new dimension to the School of Social Work's focus on improving the lives of children, youth and families around the world and here in refugee and immigrant communities within the Greater Boston region. This combination of robust research and practice innovation will distinguish our social work program, and strengthen our ability to improve vulnerable lives through evidence-based interventions here, at home, and across the globe."

Betancourt’s research has taken place in Rwanda, Uganda, India, Ethiopia, the Russian Federation and Sierra Leone, where she has spent the past 15 years directing the intergenerational study of war-affected youth. The project has been cited as the most extensive examination of post-war intergenerational relationships since studies of Holocaust survivors. Betancourt has also worked with refugees in Boston and in communities around the world.

 “Understanding the longer-term consequences of the direct and indirect effects of war is critical to designing strengths-based interventions to help young people and their families to thrive” said Betancourt. “We aim to position our research at the crossroad of policy and evidence-based practices to both understand potential leverage points for change and then to use this knowledge to develop intervention models that can be feasible, effective and ultimately scalable and sustainable to assist children, youth and families facing adversity.”

"Professor Betancourt's research is truly global in scale, but focused on what matters most: the well-being of children, families and communities, particularly those devastated by the effects of war and conflict."

An early study co-authored by Betancourt was based on one of the first randomized controlled trials of mental health interventions among African adolescents affected by war. Among her findings, Betancourt’s research has shown that effective treatments can work even in remote, impoverished regions beset by conflict where access to highly trained mental health professionals is limited.

As part of her more than $8.5 million in research funding, Betancourt serves as the principal investigator of a National Institutes of Mental Health-funded project to integrate evidence-based behavioral interventions for war-affected youth into employment initiatives in Sierra Leone; and as principal investigator for a National Institutes of Mental Health-funded project to work to strengthen families for Somali Bantu and Bhutanese refugees in New England.

Navyn Salem
Navyn Datoo Salem '94, H'12

The Salem Professorship in Global Practice was established in 2014 through a major gift from Boston College Trustee Navyn Datoo Salem ’94, H ’12 and her husband Paul J. Salem. The endowed professorship supports a scholar whose work is international in scope.
"Finding innovative ways to address global challenges is both a personal and a professional passion for me,” said Navyn Salem. “That is why Paul and I are so honored to establish the Salem Professorship in Global Practice at the School of Social Work, and to welcome Theresa Betancourt to the faculty. Our hope is that with her critical research and expertise, the School of Social Work will lead the way in offering substantive practical applications to ameliorate global challenges, particularly those that affect the most vulnerable members of our society. I can think of no better place to accomplish this goal than Boston College, which remains committed to helping all members of the human family to flourish.”

Betancourt has written extensively on mental health, child development, family functioning and resilience in children facing trauma and adversity, including articles in publications that include Child Development, Lancet Global Health, the Journal of the America Medical Association, the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Social Science and Medicine.

In 2016, Betancourt received the T.H. Chan School’s Alice Hamilton Award, which recognizes the impact in public health and the future promise of a woman faculty member. Her work has focused as much on interventions to help traumatized children as it has revealed the depths of that trauma.
Working from available evidence, Betancourt devised her own child protection framework, known as SAFE. The model reflects the basic security needs and rights that are central to promoting child protection, specifically Safety from harm; Access to basic needs such as food, shelter and medical care; Family or connection to “attachment figures”; and Education and economic security. The framework has been employed by Betancourt in India, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and northern Uganda, as well as by other researchers in Haiti and Lesotho.

“It’s about interrelatedness,” Betancourt told Harvard magazine. “Kids need attachment figures. If they’re not finding it from their immediate family, they’re going to find it somewhere.”

Betancourt serves on the American Association for the Advancement of Science Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, the Academic Steering Committee of the Center for Refugee Trauma and Resilience at Boston Children’s Hospital and on the International Advisory Board of the Peter C. Alderman Foundation, which has dedicated itself to addressing the consequences of trauma globally. She collaborates frequently with non-governmental organizations such as CARITAS and the International Rescue Committee.
A graduate of Linfield College in Oregon, Betancourt earned a master’s degree in expressive art therapy from the University of Louisville and a doctorate in maternal and child health and post-doctoral training in psychiatric epidemiology and biostatistics from the T.H Chan School.

—Ed Hayward | University Communications