In this issue

Interview with David Zielinski, PhD

David Zielinski, PhD, offers advice to graduate students studying child maltreatment.

By Michelle Brown, MA

We are excited to follow up with section award winner David Zielinski, PhD. Zielinski was awarded the Section Child Maltreatmenet Dissertation Award in 2003 for his dissertation “Child Maltreatment and Adult Socioeconomic Outcomes: The Mediational Role of Psychopathology.” Zielinski earned his BA in psychology and political science from Fordham University in New York City. He then went on to receive his MA and PhD from Cornell University. Staying true to his commitment to have one foot in psychology and the other in policy, Zielinski completed two internships during his time as a graduate student at Cornell: one as a program analyst with the National Institute on Aging and one in the office of Sen. Hillary Clinton, where he was able to bring the perspective of a research scientist to issues related to child and family welfare and policy. Zielinski went on to successfully defend his dissertation in 2004.

The primary goal of Zielinski's dissertation was to examine the link between child maltreatment and socioeconomic outcomes in childhood. At the time, there was a lot of research that looked at the short-term impact of child maltreatment, but the long-term effects into adulthood and across the life course had not been studied comprehensively.

To conduct this research, Zielinski used a nationally representative data set from the National Comorbidity Survey. He looked at whether adults who had been maltreated in childhood were less likely to be employed, had lower incomes or lacked health care coverage in adulthood. He found that there was indeed a strong relation between child maltreatment and these outcomes, but effects varied based on maltreatment subtype.

Specifically, physical abuse largely accounted for the relationship between child maltreatment and employment-related deficiencies. Also, the relationship between maltreatment and lower rates of health care coverage with greater reliance on Medicaid was especially strong for victims of child sexual abuse. Effects of child maltreatment on income, including being classified as below the poverty line and having an income in the lowest quartile of income distribution, were especially salient for victims of severe childhood neglect. Zielinski's work was published in 2009 in Child Abuse and Neglect.

The findings from Zielinski's dissertation have important implications for economic policy as well as prevention and intervention. Specifically, these findings suggest that adults who have experienced child maltreatment present a large economic cost to society. Thus, policy makers should have a vested interest in improving the lives of maltreated children through intervention and treatment efforts to potentially prevent these negative socioeconomic outcomes and alleviate the financial burden on society. Furthermore, when considering how best to assist adults experiencing economic challenges, history of maltreatment should be considered. In fact, Zielinski's journal article was cited in a policy hearing in Connecticut, and he has been contacted by and worked with lawyers seeking guidance on how to deal with clients who have experienced child abuse and neglect. Additionally, he has presented to social workers about the initial links between child maltreatment and socioeconomic outcomes. After finishing his doctoral degree in 2004, Zielinski went on to complete two concurrent postdocs over the course of two years at Duke University. One postdoc was with Kenneth Dodge, PhD, through National Institute on Drug Abuse in which he was able to work with nonprofits in the state of North Carolina to do important evaluative and policy-related work. His other postdoc allowed him to do early genetics work on the impact of child maltreatment with Avshalom Caspi, PhD, through the National Consortium on Violence Research. Following his postdocs, he spent eight years with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) serving in various roles including as a policy analyst with the National Institute of Mental Health, which turned into a position as the chief of the Policy and Evaluation Office and a promotion to the director of scientific communications. In his final NIH position, Zielenski served as the policy and planning chief for the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

Currently, Zielinski serves as the associate dean of science at Columbia University. In his position, he oversees the research activities of nine of the science and mathematics departments — including psychology — in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is responsible for faculty recruitment and retention, tenure review, student issues, development and fundraising and developing and maintaining a strategic plan for the college. His position helps to ensure that people doing research in the area of child maltreatment and other areas have the resources and supports necessary to carry out their work. Given his impressive work in the field of child maltreatment and abundant success in his career endeavors, we asked Zielinski what advice he would give to graduate students studying child maltreatment. His response was to not just focus on the academic publishing side of research but to remember that our work has a number of real-world applications. Thus, it is important to take an active role in ensuring that our findings are disseminated to the people who need to hear them: social workers, child protective service workers and policymakers. While it can be challenging to get our voice out there, it is possible to be an academic conducting serious research while, at the same time, making sure our work gets heard beyond our select group of scientists.

Zielinski would like to express his sincere appreciation to the Section on Child Maltreatment for the recognition and funding that helped to support this important work. He feels that though no one is doing this type of work for the awards or to get a pat on the back, having that support and having others acknowledge that the work you do is important and makes studying a difficult subject matter all the more worth it. Thank you, Zielinski, for your contribution to the field of child maltreatment.