Advocacy in Action

Q & A with Gail S. Goodman

An interview with Professor Gail S. Goodman.

By Julie Cohen, PhD

Gail S. Goodman is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), and Director of the Center for Public Policy Research at UC Davis, which conducts research for the California Department of Social Services and other state and nonprofit agencies. She has received many awards for her research, including the 2012 James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award for Lifetime Contributions to Applied Research from the Association for Psychological Science, the American Psychological Association’s 2005 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Research in Public Policy, and the 2004 Division 37 Nicholas Hobbs Award. She is a past President of Division 37 (1991-1992), the Section on Child Maltreatment (1999-2000), and Division 41, American Psychology-Law Society (1996-1997). She is currently President-Elect of Division 7, Developmental Psychology.

When did you begin to do policy-oriented research and how did you become interested in that?

I was trained in graduate school at UCLA to conduct basic cognitive development research. It was theory-oriented, laboratory research, relying on scientifically tight experimental design. That training has served me well. However, I always had this burning desire to do something to help children in the here and now, especially regarding children and the law. Applied work was not well accepted back then, but I snuck a little bit of that in during my last year in graduate school. Another graduate student (Jack Lipton) and I conducted survey research on adults’ attitudes toward children’s rights. When I became a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Denver, I was able to pursue those interests more, including on such topics as children’s eyewitness memory, trauma and memory, child abuse, and children within the legal and social service systems. I wanted to see the work in my lifetime help the most disadvantaged children. I had been raised by a mother who felt that child advocacy and helping children was the most important thing one could do, especially for maltreated children and children who have suffered trauma generally. That was on my agenda ever since I was in grade school.

When was the Center for Public Policy Research founded, and why?

Several years after I arrived at UC Davis, someone from the state government was looking on the Web to see if a center devoted to public policy could be started close to Sacramento, our state capital. On the Web, she read about my work. I was just sitting here in my office and got a phone call. It turned out that the “someone” was Dr. Nikki Baumrind, who was the Chief of Research for the California Department of Social Services. (And yes, she is the daughter of the famous developmental psychologist, Dr. Diana Baumrind.) It was really Nikki’s inspiration to start the center, not mine. It was her vision for a center that would bring the great resources of the university to aid the state government in a new way. Then we worked together for two years to try to get the contract established and figure out what the new center would be like and get it approved at all levels. We had no idea if it would become a reality. Some people at the university said it would never happen at the state level, but it did on March 29, 2005. At that time, I was also working closely with Dr. Michael Lawler, who was the Director of the Center for Human Services at UC Davis. He holds a Ph.D. in Human Development, which he earned after obtaining an MSW at UC Berkeley. He was a wonderful colleague and resource who knew a great deal about public policy. He is now a Dean and Professor at the University of South Dakota.

And so the Center for Public Policy Research (CPPR) at UC Davis was born. Our goal is to bring science to policy. We usually negotiated with the state on projects that they want performed on topics like foster care, welfare to work, and food stamps. We have written policy reports when they want to know the latest research on a topic. Right now we are developing a screen for learning disabilities in Spanishspeaking adults who apply for welfare (usually poor women with children). This project is headed by Dr. Ingrid Cordon, a developmental psychologist who is the Research Director of CPPR.

In the past, much of our efforts went into state needs concerning children in foster care. For instance, we conducted a huge foster care project for the state for two years. It was to help establish the National Youth in Transition Database. This is a federal initiative that involves surveying all foster youth within 45 days of their 17th birthdays using a questionnaire developed by the federal government. A subset of the youth will be surveyed again at age 19 and 21. California has the largest population of foster youth in the country. We were trying to find and interview over 6000 children within 45 days of their birthdays. A large team of wonderful, dedicated UC Davis undergraduates were helping us locate and interview about 500 youth every month all over the state, and sometimes in other states or even Mexico. It was an immense and high-pressure job, because federal penalties to the state’s foster care funds were at stake. At the end of the first wave of data collection, we and the state realized that the counties needed to take the project over, because the counties are in regular contact with the youth anyway. The data go to the state and from there on to the federal government. It’s the first time the federal government has tried to track the outcome of foster youth once they transition out of foster care. The goal also is to determine the services that are most helpful, so it’s potentially a quite important project that will contribute to better public policy for foster youth. We were honored to be involved in this pioneering national effort.

We have conducted other work for the state as well. For instance, they have been interested in how they can better use administrative data collected by state agencies and also counties. Is there a way they can combine the data they have to best serve foster youth? Foster care data tend to be “siloed” within agencies. But social workers and foster parents need to know, for example, in that last foster placement, did the child get inoculated? If the doctors feel they can’t release such information due to HIPAA laws, then the child may get inoculated again and again, unnecessarily. That’s just one example of many. There really has to be a way to combine data across agencies. Several of us at CPPR have been a part of a subcommittee of the Child Welfare Council of California that is working on the issue of data integration. CPPR also wrote a report on the issue of foster care data integration that has been useful for the state.

In the past, CPPR worked in addition with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). They would approach us with various projects, such as one on the assessment of parent-child attachment for children being raised in prison nurseries. We also wrote a series of literature reviews for CDCR on juvenile delinquency. On behalf of CDCR, CPPR was in a position to fund other researchers, such as at UCLA and UC Irvine, on topics like therapeutic approaches that benefit female prisoners or findings from psychological research relevant to probation and re-entry.

And we have been fortunate to obtain funding from several nonprofit agencies as well. These projects again mostly concerned foster youth and child protection.

Tell me about your leadership work and how you were able to advocate through leadership positions.

So far, I am most proud of the advocacy role I played through my leadership position in the Section on Child Maltreatment. When the Rind et al. controversy hit APA, I was President of the Section at that time. This controversy was about the meta-analysis published in Psychological Bulletin that suggested that adult sex with adolescent boys was not harmful. Dr. Laura, the talk show host, got her hands on the article, and her protests were heard over the airwaves. The US Congress took note and was about to sanction the entire APA for publishing the article, which would not have been a good thing. APA came to the Section for help, and one of the things we did was to write an article that was also published in Psychological Bulletin about the problems with that meta-analysis. We entitled it “Sex with Children is Abuse.” It was a joint effort of four or five people on behalf of the Section. Steven Ondersma from Wayne State University was the lead author.

Do you think there is any tension or tradeoffs between wanting to conduct rigorous research and doing policy-oriented research?

Most of my research is both applied and theoretical. For instance, if we’re looking at children’s eyewitness testimony, there are theoretical issues about how trauma affects memory. There are also policy-oriented issues: How do you interview a child? How accurate can a child be? What affects accuracy in the legal context? The research ends up being relevant both to theory and to practice.

There are definitely tradeoffs, though. In regard to CPPR, some of the work is not publishable due to real-world constraints, yet it still may affect policy. We can always refuse to do a certain project, however. And of course it works best if we are able to negotiate with the agency about the scientific merit of the project and how the research should go. It is really varied how much we have been able to do that. In the work we are conducting now on Spanishspeaking welfare applicants, we had a lot of input. We are basically developing a test, so the project is inherently about psychometrics. We were able to draw on the resources of the University of California and say to the state “This is the way to do it.” However, how much say we have really varies a lot depending on the project.

Sometimes CPPR is helping the state respond to a lawsuit, and we may not be conducting research in the usual sense of the term in psychology. For example, there was a lawsuit that foster parents brought against the state to say that they were being underpaid. We had to research the best methodologies (i.e., payment structure rules) for determining payment in the various states and fit what we discovered to conform to California laws. We found that it would be possible to develop a methodology that was more up to current standards. The issue is important so that foster parents can best care for foster youth. Our report went to the court and presumably influenced their decision.

Sometimes the trade-off is such that we can’t get important rigorous research accomplished-- research that would greatly benefit children. As one example, in terms of foster care, we need to know a lot more about the whole removal process and how to make that better for children. We need to be focusing on children’s well-being and their attachment to their biological parents and foster parents instead of narrowly focusing on safety and permanency. But the child protection system does not always appreciate the need for rigorous scientific research. They may understand the need for policy-related studies but not the need for careful, controlled scientifically sound, objective investigations (for example, with random assignment to groups) on which policy really should be based. And even for the many who do understand and appreciate this need and would like to be supportive and helpful in this regard, fiscal realities are currently too often quite prohibitive.

What advice do you have for students and early career psychologists?

My advice is to conduct highquality research that is intellectually interesting while also answering questions that policymakers want to know the answers to. In my case, that’s really what I’ve stuck to as much as possible, promoting science as well as justice and child advocacy. I was lucky because when I first started my child witness research, the courts were eager for information at that point on children and the legal system. The courts and policy makers started eating up the work very quickly, too quickly really…we wanted time to replicate and make sure it was right. Instead, it went right into the courts and into policy.

I’d also say don’t give up. Don’t give up on your dreams to make it a better world because there’s nothing more important than that, including making children’s lives better, especially for traumatized children. When I was first in this field, people said “Oh, it’s not important. Children never testify anyway.” I was at first not talking to the right audience. Finding the right audience can be crucial. The lawyers, psychiatrists, and social workers thought that child witness work was important, and fortunately so did my postdoctoral mentor, Dr. Marshall Haith. That was encouraging. But really, I was determined in any case. After a few years, psychology as a whole realized the topic was actually of interest. And then suddenly my research was getting more attention from policy makers and psychologists than I ever imagined possible.