In this issue

In memoriam: Mark Jeffrey Chaffin (1952-2015): Flying by the data

A reprint of an article that appeared in Child Maltreatment about the life and work of Mark Chaffin, PhD.

By L. Berliner, B. L. Bonner, S.J. Ondersma, S.J. Ondersma, and P. Stern

Mark Chaffin was a pilot and loved to tell the story of how small plane flight instructors would take the nearly ready to be certified student and blindfold them in the cockpit. ‘‘You're advanced enough now,'' the instructor would say; ‘‘Fly for a bit by instinct.'' Blindfold on, the student pilot would confidently handle the plane for some time before being asked, ‘‘How are you doing?'' ‘‘Just fine,'' the student would proclaim. Then the instructor would have the student remove the blindfold. Invariably, the plane was heading into some disaster. ‘‘Use the instruments, don't fly by feel'' was the lesson the flight instructors imparted. For Mark Chaffin, ‘‘use the data, don't go by feel,'' wisdom imparted in the seat of airplane, would become the mantra of his professional life.

Dr. Mark Chaffin passed away on Sunday, August 23, 2015, near his home in Atlanta, GA. Over his 25-year career as a psychologist and researcher, he proved to be a uniquely gifted scientist whose prodigious talents—which could have taken him anywhere—were devoted to rigorous study of the development, adaptation, and implementation of evidence-based service models in child welfare and juvenile justice, work to which he was wholly devoted. He was widely acknowledged as a person of unparalleled intellect, integrity, generosity, humor, and humanity whose contributions to the field have been increasingly recognized and who will be profoundly missed by the many colleagues and friends fortunate enough to have known him. His loss is a tragedy for his family, his friends, and his colleagues but also for the field that is now greatly diminished without him.

Professional History and Contributions

Dr. Chaffin was an Oklahoma Sooner. His postsecondary schooling was exclusively from the University of Oklahoma, culminating with a PhD in counseling psychology from the University of Oklahoma in 1990. His dissertation, entitled ‘‘Factors associated with treatment compliance and progress in intrafamilial sexual abusers,'' was the first of many investigations of treatment considerations in child abuse. Among the members of his dissertation committee was Barbara Bonner, PhD, who noted his obvious talents and encouraged him to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center (OUHSC). This fellowship, focused on pediatric psychology, child sexual abuse, and children and adolescents with sexual behavior problems, marked the beginning of a lifelong partnership between Dr. Chaffin and Dr. Bonner. They would prove, over the years to come, to be a formidable team.

Following the fellowship at OUHSC in 1990, Dr. Chaffin accepted a faculty position at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. During his 6-year tenure there, he established a specialized program for the treatment of families involved in child sexual abuse. In 1996, Dr. Bonner was able to realize her long-standing goal of bringing Dr. Chaffin back to OUHSC. He joined the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect in the Department of Pediatrics as an associate professor and the director of research and there began a program of research on evidence-based service models for the broad spectrum of child abuse and neglect cases. In 2014, hoping to expand his work into the sphere of public health, Dr. Chaffin moved to the Center for Healthy Development at Georgia State University (GSU) to work with John Lutzker, PhD, and other colleagues dedicated to the promotion of population-level services to prevent neglect and other forms of maltreatment. In just 1 full year at GSU, Dr. Chaffin's impact was more significant than any one person would ever likely replicate. By the end of his career, his research would be recognized as among the most important done in the field. As has been noted by all who knew him, he brought scientific brilliance, incisive thinking, and the ability to go to the heart of the matter to the study of child maltreatment. His writing, whether an e-mail, a manuscript, or journal review, read like professional poetry.

Of the many possible examples of his contributions, perhaps the greatest is his demonstration that an evidence-based intervention for neglect (the most common form of child maltreatment) can be scaled up in a routine practice environment. He started with an evaluation of current services showing that they were not achieving their goals. Notably, he and his comrade-in-arms, Barbara Bonner, and their team conducted the evaluation in such a genuinely respectful and collaborative manner that even though the results were not welcome, there was receptivity to the idea of adopting and testing an alternative approach. The research group led by Mark was then able to embark on a trial that was fully embraced by the child welfare system in which the entire state was randomized to experimental condition (using the SafeCare model) and a usual care condition. The successful outcome of this study has translated to adoptions of the SafeCare intervention all over the country.

A second of many possible examples is his work with youth exhibiting problematic sexual behavior, for which he took his direct clinical experiences with youth and the child welfare system out of the laboratory, and directly into the world of policy and practice. He led efforts that summarized the relevant science and demonstrated its application in Task Force Reports. The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers Task Force Report on Children with Sexual Behavior Problems, for which he served as Task Force Committee Chair, has been highly influential in turning the various disciplines involved with child abuse away from punitive, stigmatizing responses driven by misinformation and ideology and toward more humane and scientifically based approaches. More recently, he was the moving force behind the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children's Task Force on Evidence-Based Service Planning that directs the field away from traditions based on unproven assumptions, convention, and risk averse practice and toward an empirically based approach that promises to increase the likelihood that families will be successful and children will be safer.


These remarkable accomplishments, which only scratch the surface of Dr. Chaffin's contributions, could not have taken place without his exceptional combination of qualities. He was intellectually curious about all manner of scientific (and not so scientific) matters and understood that there was much to be learned from other fields that could advance our own. He was an iconoclast in the best sense: He questioned conventional wisdom when not based on science or scientific principles. His accomplishments were recognized broadly. He was elected a fellow in the American Psychological Association, received a number of national awards for his research and publications (including receipt of four Pro Humanitate Awards from the North American Resource Center for Child Welfare, two Article of the Year awards from the journal Child Maltreatment, and the Outstanding Service Award from the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children), was the founding editor of the top-ranked journal Child Maltreatment, and served on a number of national advisory boards and review panels, including for the Institute of Medicine.

Dr. Chaffin also stood out for his ability to survive in a field of study that can be difficult and demanding. He was a true Renaissance man who could display deep knowledge on nearly any subject and whose boyish humor brought a much-needed levity wherever he went. (Even the latter couldn't help but display his talents, such as his extended treatise on the taxonomy of flip-flops, sent to the entire section of developmental and behavioral pediatrics in response to Dr. Bonner's edict against the aforementioned footwear at the office. He was also known for writing, with friends, a series of faux research papers under the nom de plume of Kibbles and Bits.)

These qualities are exactly what the problem of child maltreatment needs. Child maltreatment is complicated in every way, scientifically and in terms of its inextricable intertwining with high stakes policy and practice. Dr. Chaffin was out on the leading edge in designing creative methods for testing hypotheses for a complex and multifactorial problem that must be addressed in real-world settings to be meaningful. He pioneered the application of newer and more sophisticated statistical procedures to control for variables when the context cannot be controlled. And he did not just lend his exceptional intellect to the scientific endeavor; he contributed in the very best way by using science to promote empirically based policy and practice.

His impact will continue to be felt, not only through the remarkable research outlined above but also through his work with countless students, interns, fellows, and junior faculty, on whom he had a profound impact. Those fortunate enough to learn from him found him to be a challenging, supportive, and thoughtful mentor who permanently changed the way they saw the field and their role in it. Each of them is now an emissary of his thinking..

Reflections on Mark Chaffin

Mark Chaffin never cared about being ‘‘special.'' Although a man of deep humanity and compassion, he never set out to change the world or to be a crusader for children. He had no interest in creating tests or measures or instruments that would bear his name or to have his name sitting on a bookshelf. He just wanted to be a good father and a good husband and to do good quality research. He wanted to know why the field did what it did. He cared about outcomes and results. If the field was going to do things to improve the lives of children, then what mattered was the impact on the children, not the impact on the service providers.

For Mark Chaffin, doing the right thing was better than doing the easy thing or the profitable thing. He believed in doing what the data say to do. And, in doing just that, he made an enormous difference.

Reprinted with permission from: Berliner, L., Bonner, B.L., Lutzker, J.R., Ondersma, S.J., & Stern, P. (2015). In memoriam: Mark Jeffery Chaffin (1952-2015): Flying by the data. Child Maltreatment, 20(4), 227-228.