Profiles in Advocacy

Diane Willis

Diane Willis has been instrumental in promoting psychologists' role in advocating for healthy child development.

By Sarah E. Beals-Erickson, MA

“Use your skills and your knowledge to open doors for others, and take the time to help open those doors.” (Diane J. Willis, 2001)

In the last edition of Profiles in Advocacy, Dr. Nicolas Hobbs was highlighted. One of his students who continued on in a legacy of advocacy is Dr. Diane J. Willis (1937- ), who is also widely considered to be an exemplar of advocacy.

According to Dr. Carolyn Schroeder, Dr. Willis’s longtime friend and colleague, in light of Dr. Willis’s significant and longstanding advocacy, a new Div. 37 award has been named in her honor. The Diane J. Willis Early Career Psychologist award, established in the American Psychological Foundation, will be presented to an individual who is just starting their career but is following in Dr. Willis’s footsteps. “She is a quintessential psychologist for children and families,” said Dr. Schroeder. “Her work in promoting child health and decreasing child maltreatment is legendary.”

Indeed, Dr. Willis, professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, has been fundamental in establishing professional organizations to promote psychologists’ role in advocating for healthy child development. For example, she founded the Div. 37 Section on Child Maltreatment, and she has served as the president of Div. 37 and the Society of Clinical Psychology (Div. 12). She also was president of the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology (now Div. 53) and the Society for Pediatric Psychology (now Division 54) when they were Sections of Div. 12. Dr. Willis was instrumental in establishing these child-focused divisions. She also has been president of the American Orthopsychiatric Association. She was the driving force in turning the Division 54 newsletter into the Journal of Pediatric Psychology (an action for which she has another award named in her honor). She has long encouraged using research to inform practice, and has published numerous articles and book chapters, as well as co-editing several books. Some of Dr. Willis’s other major accolades include the Distinguished Professional Contribution to Clinical Psychology award, the Nicholas Hobbs award, Indian Woman of the Year by the Oklahoma Federation of Indian Woman, and APA Fellow.

Dr. Willis’s career demonstrates her ability to advocate across multiple systemic levels. As a student of Nicolas Hobbs, Dr. Willis began her career with a decidedly developmental focus, which was evident in her work at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center (OUHSC). She initially provided individual/family-level advocacy and direct services for populations with developmental disabilities, but later Dr. Willis began working in medical settings providing some of the first consultation and liaison services with mentorship from Dr. Logan Wright.

While at OUHSC, Dr. Willis worked to establish the Child Study Center, where she worked for 25 years. Dr. Schroeder stated that when state budgetary concerns threatened the center’s existence, Dr. Willis was a powerful advocate for the Center in both the state legislature and at the University. “Not only did she keep the doors open, but her advocacy efforts helped establish several distinguished professorships in the Center,” said Schroeder.

Dr. Willis credits such efforts with legislators and her willingness to form relationships with them as a primary avenue for her advocacy work, and she readily encourages psychologists to do the same. “So often we don’t think about making friends with legislators,” Dr. Willis said. However, Dr. Willis said that sharing research and clinical experiences with legislators (locally and nationally) is an important means of advocacy that can result in broad changes for disadvantaged children and families. For example, Dr. Willis shared that she (with an alliance of child-focused agencies) was able to influence state legislators to amend the Welfare Act to provide better early child care and prevent neglect from parents going to work without adequate child care. This was done by sharing case stories and showing brain scans that evidenced the toll neglect can have on early development. “It really made an impression,” she said.

At the national level, Dr. Willis has also testified to Congress as part of the Child Abuse Advisory Board. Successes like these fit well with Dr. Willis’s advice that psychologists be “civic-minded and politically active” in order to advocate for the needs of children and families.

Dr. Willis, who is a member of the Kiowa tribe, has also focused significant advocacy efforts in supporting child development and decreasing child maltreatment in American Indian/Alaskan Native populations. She has worked tirelessly to consult and provide direct services on reservations, and has been doing so for over 30 years. She continues to see clients weekly through Indian Health Service clinics, and she’s lobbying for more professionals to fill the great need she sees in this population. She has also been integral in establishing Early Head Start and Head Start programs of research and service for American Indian/Alaskan Native youth and families. Dr. Willis is currently advocating locally to establish better multidisciplinary assessment of American Indian youth in foster care as well.

Dr. Willis also states that besides approaching legislators, another key to incorporating more advocacy into one’s career is to be “unselfish” with psychology, which means giving away some portion of one’s expertise. “You need to focus on career, but you can still give away a little,” she said.

Dr. Willis sees future advocacy efforts as being most needed for low income, disadvantaged, and minority children and families, as data show that these groups are most at-risk for problems and lack of resources. Ways that Dr. Willis sees that early career psychologists can get started in advocacy include getting active at local and state programs for these populations, offering consultation to local Head Start programs or homeless shelters, as well as mentoring students and seeing some patients pro-bono.

Clearly Dr. Willis’s career includes diligent advocacy for groups in need at multiple levels of action. It is indeed fitting that future psychologists seek to emulate her efforts. “She’s mentored all of us in many ways,” said Dr. Schroeder. “She’s a premiere psychologist for children and families in every venue, especially those who are disadvantaged or maltreated.”

About the Author

Sarah E. Beals-Erickson, MA is a fifth-year doctoral student in the Clinical Child Psychology Program at the University of Kansas. Her research interests include evaluation of programs for at-risk youth, understanding barriers, gaps, and help-seeking in mental health services, and children's mental health systems.

References

Abramson, C. I., & Lack, C., W. (2005). Native American in psychology: Biographical information. Retrieved from http://psychology.okstate.edu/museum/native/bio.html#djwillis

Schroeder, C. (personal communication, September 27, 2012). Willis, D. J. (1991, Fall). From the desk of the chair.AAP Advance, 13.

Willis, D. J. (2001). Diane J. Willis, 1937-. In A. O’Connell (Ed.), Models of achievement: Reflections of eminent women in psychology (Vol. 3, pp. 127- 134). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Willis, D. J. (personal communication, September 30, 2012)