A History of the Office of Child Development
The seed for what was to become the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development was sown in 1983, when two junior faculty members set out to organize an interdisciplinary conference on child development and the media.

Mark S. Strauss, from the Department of Psychology, and Carl N. Johnson, from the Program of Child Development and Child Care in the School of Social Work, observed that although many of their faculty colleagues held interests in children, youth, and families, they were scattered across the university landscape and often worked in isolation from society, whose problems they sought to relieve.

They reasoned that collaboration across disciplinary barriers might enrich University projects with complementary perspectives and skills. Also, if service professionals and policymakers were brought into the collaborative mix, perhaps the broad-based information academics had to offer would receive more of their attention and be put to use to benefit families and children.

Although the University had attempted for several years to bring groups together around issues of children and youth, the effort had not taken hold. "We decided the reason it never lasted was because it had to go on the inertia of individual faculty. There was nothing organized. There was no money behind it. No sort of mission. That got us thinking about the idea of having this facilitative office," said Strauss.

So, Strauss and Johnson organized an interdisciplinary group of faculty to create a unit that would help to bring a wide range of expertise to bear on issues important to children, youth, and families.

Prenatal Life

“When Mark and I were thinking about this whole thing, we went back and forth on the idea of an office or a center,” said Johnson. “The problem with a center is that it would not serve the purpose of interdisciplinary connection because it ends up becoming another unit, another discipline. Conversely, the idea of having a facilitating unit was a hard sell within the University. The University is constantly thinking a unit like this should support itself. But if we did, we’d have to get our own funds, we’d have our own indirect costs, and we’d become self-serving. The whole reason for this organization was to serve other groups.”

The interdisciplinary committee embraced the concept of a unit devoted to facilitating interdisciplinary education and research, promoting mutually beneficial partnerships between faculty and community professionals, and disseminating information to service professionals, policymakers, and the general public. The proposal for the Office of Child Development was taken to the Provost, who provided a senior professorship with which to hire a director. It was also well received outside the University, gaining financial backing from the Howard Heinz Endowment and the Buhl Foundation.

The new Office was to be a support unit. It would facilitate, create, support, and serve collaborative projects that eventually would be owned and operated by the participants. It would not operate the interdisciplinary projects it spawned.

Among the first orders of business was to hire a director, preferably from outside the University, who would represent the kind of academic credits that the University valued, but also have a value for, and some experience with, the applied activities that were to be the focus of the Office's agenda.

The Office hired Robert B. McCall, whose experience covered the scholastic, services, and dissemination themes of the Office. Dr. McCall was a scholar of infant mental development and longitudinal research design and analysis. He had been Chairman of Psychology at Fels Research Institute, and then Executive Assistant to the Director for Program Planning and Evaluation at Father Flanagan’s Boy’s Town. He also had been contributing editor, columnist, and feature writer for Parents magazine.

Birth, 1986-1987

The Office of Child Development was born when Dr. McCall arrived in September 1986. Among his first actions was to seek out a Human Services Coordinator.

Margaret Petruska, Program Officer at the Howard Heinz Endowment, mentioned the position to Christina J. Groark, formerly a services administrator for the Association of Retarded Citizens and the Allegheny County Mental Health/Mental Retardation/Drug and Alcohol Department, Groark decided to interview, in part, to meet McCall, whose columns in Parents magazine she had read. She accepted the position. It was a hiring that would serve the Office well. In 1993, Groark would become its Co-Director and the main architect of its program direction.

Infancy, 1986-1988

Much of the first two years were devoted to meetings with people from the University, policymakers, and funders to explore potential services and collaborations and create a climate in which interdisciplinary collaborations could germinate.

It wasn’t long, however, until a group of faculty and community professionals organized by Dr. Strauss succeeded in obtaining a federal grant for an interdisciplinary training program in child abuse and neglect that was to have a substantial role for community agencies.

The grant would be followed by several other planning grants with Edward Sites of the School of Social Work over the next decade, including the Interdisciplinary Child Welfare Training Grant. The Office also helped United Mental Health get a grant in 1987, the first of many significant grants it would help other agencies obtain.

Childhood, 1988-1992

The Office would have a short, but torrid, childhood. During a four-year period, it would develop the first major projects in interdisciplinary education, interdisciplinary research, needs assessments, indicators, university-community networking, service demonstrations, program evaluation, and policy studies.

One project arose when Jay Belsky was invited to give a lecture as part of the Office's colloquium series. A specialist from Pennsylvania State University on the effects of day-care, he lamented that a grant request was out to study the effects of different early childhood service experiences on later development, but he did not have the number of children in State College that were needed nor the faculty expertise in some of the required areas.

The University of Pittsburgh had such resources, however. Dr. Strauss organized Susan Campbell, Celia Brownell, and Jeff Cohen -- a collaboration that eventually received substantial funding as one of nine national sites of the NICHD’s Study of Children’s Lives. It was the prototypical example of how the Office was to operate; namely facilitate collaboration and step aside once it was funded to organize the next partnership.

This model process, however, was not often duplicated. In 1988-89, for example, the Office organized faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, Temple, and Penn State, in addition to Ethel Tittnich, Martha Isler, and Barbara Smith from the Pittsburgh community to conduct a needs assessment of early childhood services in Pennsylvania for the Pennsylvania State Board of Education. When no one stepped forward, the Office took the lead.

Meanwhile, the Office conducted its first program evaluation of the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center in Clairton. In 1990, the Office published Overcoming the Odds, which documented the risk of child and family problems in various Allegheny County neighborhoods. The report, which has been widely used to target resources, led to the State of the Child series, first prepared by Elena Shair and then by Martha Steketee.

The Office also staffed the nascent Allegheny County Commission on Children (Andi Fischhoff), a predecessor of the Allegheny Policy Council, which was its first strategic planning project. The Office also wrote its first background paper, Preventing School Failure, for United Way. Dozens of Special Reports and Briefing Papers on issues related to children and families would follow.

Also, Kathryn Rudy was hired as Assistant Human Service Coordinator, and she organized and funded the Drug and Alcohol Prevention Task Force for Runaway and Homeless Youth, the first of several networks she would undertake to organize.

“Growth was really not part of the original idea,” said McCall. “On paper, we were to coordinate and stimulate interdisciplinary activities within the University and between the University and community professionals. Once groups were created and funded they would pick their own directors and go off and do their projects.” Increasingly, however, the Office was asked to take a continuing role. “Groups asked us to stay to manage the project once it was funded. That had not been anticipated.”

For example, two major service demonstration projects were undertaken during this time. When the Allegheny County MH/MR/D&A decided to organize the county’s outreach, screening, and referral effort for families with children with disabilities, it needed someone to hold in balance the medical professionals from five area hospitals and the child development specialists and social workers who would follow-up with participating families. The Office stepped in, wrote the grant application, organized, and then operated the Alliance for Infants.

The same year, the experimental federal Comprehensive Child Development Program was created. Families Facing the Future, operated by Community Human Services, Corps, was one of three national pilot projects. The Office worked with its project director, Laurie Mulvey, to organize what became Family Foundations, now one of the original federal Early Head Start demonstration and research/evaluation projects. Although the intent of the Office was not to operate the program, the partners insisted, reasoning that if collaborative projects need an independent convener, they needed an independent manager when there was money and administrative decisions to make.

“The Office was established to facilitate collaborations. But once a project was to be implemented, the neutrality we brought sometimes was necessary to implement and manage the project, because the kinds of projects we developed required collaborations and comprehensive work,” said Groark. “Because we were seen as a neutral management organization, we were able to avoid turf issues.”

Those two demonstration programs changed the course of the Office to facilitator and manager of collaborative service demonstration projects and set it on a new growth trajectory. Within a year, for example, A Better Start, directed by Christine Mitchell-Weaver, would join this group. Eventually, the Statewide Needs Assessment in 1993 led to the creation of the Office’s Policy and Evaluation Project, which primarily evaluated community-operated service projects. At that point, office staff were clearly conducting, not just facilitating, a wide range of projects.

One other event defined the new thrust for the Office. In 1991, President Bush initiated the Healthy Start Program to reduce infant mortality. Co-Director Groark was asked to help organize the grant application. The planning grant was funded, the Office managed the planning and implementation phase, and the plan was approved without alteration. The $30 million initiative was then operated by the Allegheny County Health Department.

Adolescence, 1993-1996

Several existing and new projects focused on the theme of family support.

Family Foundations became Early Head Start. The Office led the management for the county in organizing family support programs and hired Sheila Beasley-Sims to be Director of the new Allegheny Family Support Policy Board. The Office provided management services for the Partnerships for Family Support (Eartha Sewell), and the Policy and Evaluation Project became a leader in evaluating family support programs (Beth Green, Anne Farber).

In addition, the Office began to conduct more strategic planning activities and policy studies. Most notably, it was awarded one of the five national sites of the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Starting Points initiative to improve the outcomes of young children. Robert Nelkin, former director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, was hired to direct the local project, which received a matching grant from the Heinz Endowments.

Adulthood, 1997-2012

The Office’s mature years began with a comprehensive strategic planning process in 1996-7. Part of this process involved asking Arthur Anderson, Inc., the national accounting and business consulting firm, to review the Office’s financial and managerial operations. Anderson’s report lauded the Office for its financial success under conditions that are far more restrictive than in private industry with regard to how funds can be accumulated and spent. However, the report also suggested that the Co-Directors could not continue to directly oversee all of the projects operated within the Office, because this had become too time consuming and deprived them of time to prospect for new projects and to guide the Office’s future. As a result, over the next few years, divisions of similar projects were created with directors who would supervise the operation of those projects.

Division of Service Demonstrations. The first division was Service Demonstrations, directed by Laurie Mulvey, which embraced the Comprehensive Child Development Program that later became Early Head Start (originally directed by Vivian Herman and now by Christopher Dunkerley). In addition, Partnerships for Family Support coordinated a network of eventually more than 30 family support programs in the Pittsburgh region. (Policy Board Director, Laura Townsend.)

Subsequently, a few years after the Heinz Endowments and the R. K. Mellon Foundation among others began Pittsburgh’s Early Childhood Initiative to bring to scale quality early care and education for low-resource families, they asked the University, which asked the Office, to create a model Early Care and Education Program for low-resource children in two Pittsburgh communities. Ultimately, these centers achieved the highest environmental care ratings in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Subsequently, the Office became the Keystone STARS Technical Assistance Center (Bernadette Bennermon) to help early care and education centers and family-based providers improve their quality. This in turn led to Strengthening Early Learning Supports, a federal program to improve quality in early care and education programs, and this project led to the Early Childhood Mental Health project, which provides support to early care and education centers having children with behavioral challenges. Finally, Pathways to School Success, originally directed by Ken Smythe-Leistico and now by Aisha White, prepares parents, children, and kindergarten teachers for the transition of young children to kindergarten, a program being expanded in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and across the country.

Division of Applied Research and Evaluation (DARE). The Policy and Evaluation Project eventually became the Division of Program Evaluation and Planning, directed by Ann Farber, which some years later was renamed the Division of Applied Research and Evaluation (DARE), directed by Junlei Li and now Milena Nigam. Among its more prominent projects was a statewide evaluation of post-traumatic stress disorder services and a Juvenile Justice Quality Improvement program, both directed by Jennifer Zajac, and the evaluation of a large teenage sexual activity and pregnancy prevention intervention conducted by Carnegie Mellon University. Its interdisciplinary program evaluation function soon became one of the largest of its kind in a USA University, and one of the few devoted almost exclusively to evaluating community-created and operated services. Over the years, DARE has worked with community agencies to evaluate dozens of projects of different kinds, and now offers community agencies an expanded set of skills and services.

In the late 1990’s, the International Assistance Group, an agency that specializes in placing Russian children for adoption in the Pittsburgh region, asked Christina Groark and Kathryn Rudy to go to Russia to assess emerging services for families and how to improve the quality of orphanages in the post-Yeltsin era. After three trips to St. Petersburg, a model intervention for an orphanage for children birth to 4-years of age was created collaboratively with Russian colleagues and ultimately funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and implemented in 2000-2005. The restructured orphanage produced substantial improvements in the children’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development relative to children in comparison orphanages. The Office also followed the parents and children who lived in these and other orphanages who transitioned to families in the USA and St. Petersburg. As a consequence of this work, the Office was asked to assess institutions and evaluate interventions created and implemented by other groups in San Salvador, Nicaragua, and China. Indeed, the Office is now among the most experienced organizations in the world at evaluating orphanages for infants and toddlers and interventions designed to improve their quality of life.

Division of Policy Initiatives. The Starting Points project was the early foundation of the Division of Policy Initiatives with Robert Nelkin as the inaugural director. The division operated a project encouraging smoking cessation among pregnant women. Subsequently, Nelkin was asked by the Governor to chair a commission for children and families (i.e., “The Children’s Cabinet”). A few years later, Nelkin left to head the United Way of Allegheny County, and he was succeeded by Ray Firth, who among other projects conducted a local needs assessment of mental health services for infants and young children and with Joan Eichner is now focusing on the unmet needs of homeless families with young children.

In the late 1990’s, the Office was instrumental in putting together faculty from Penn State and Temple Universities into the Universities Children’s Policy Consortium (UCPC), which was devoted to improving policies for children and families. In 2001, Governor Schweiker created the Governor’s Task Force on Early Care and Education, and the UCPC was poised to provide the Task Force with basic information on the availability and nature of training early care and education staff and professionals in the state’s colleges and universities, the needs of parents in Pennsylvania, and the quality of early care in Pennsylvania.

Division of Early Childhood Partnerships. In 2011, the Early Childhood Partnerships (ECP), formerly housed in Pediatrics, joined the Office as a new division directed by Steve Bagnato and Joyce D’Antonio. ECP brought the Office complementary projects and skills, especially in providing technical assistance to teachers, broad experience in evaluating early care and education programming in the region, and a specialization in young children with disabilities.

Division of Communications. Most recently, the Local Advisory Board urged the Office to expand its communication activities locally and nationally to share the fruits of its knowledge and projects as well as lessons learned in implementing new projects in the community. With the help of the Frank and Theresa Caplan Fund for Early Childhood Development and Parenting Education, which had been established at the Office in 1989, the Office published over the years a set of guides for parents and specifically for foster parents, newspaper columns on parenting, background statements for journalists on issues of child development, and a quarterly newsletter that contained a Special Report on a major topic of interest. These information materials have been extensively accessed on the Office’s website. With the advent of the Communications Division, directed by Kerry Ishizaki, and assisted by Reem Hobeldin the website is being reorganized, more information is being placed on the website, the Annual Report has been reformulated, an internal website has been created to promote better communication within the Office, and a variety of communication techniques and services have been offered to staff to improve their presentations and informational materials.

OCD Today

The Office started with essentially three people and a budget of $150,000 per year and was originally envisioned to promote collaborations within the University and between University and community professionals rather than operate projects, but it quickly learned that if an independent convener was needed to create and fund a project, an independent manager was often needed once the project started. Consequently, the Office grew rapidly in the first decade and subsequently has maintained over the years a staff of 60-85 and an annual operating budget of $6-8 million of which 90+% is external grant funding. Further, this operating budget does not include millions of dollars the Office has brought to the community and helped other agencies to obtain. Also, the Office’s level of funding has been maintained despite the fact that several major projects, some with funding of more than one million dollars per year, have been spun off to the community when they become routine established services. As an investment, the Office has continually leveraged every dollar invested in it to $20-30 of specific project funding. The Office also has one of the most diverse staff in the University, racially and ethnically but also with respect to the extent of education and fields of study (e.g., early education, early intervention, psychology, social work, public health, communications, nursing, and law, among others), and the Office provides training to as many as 20 students per year.

The Office has become probably the largest, most comprehensive, and most applied university-based unit devoted to forging collaborations among faculty, community professionals, and policy makers to create, implement, and manage innovative projects that attempt to directly contribute to the health, education, and welfare of children, youth, and families in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the nation, and beyond.

Over the years and across many projects, the Office has emphad the importance of the early years for children’s development, has created model early care and education programs, and provided technical assistance to many more programs to improve their quality and effectiveness. In addition, it established prenatal and postnatal screening programs and improved access to quality early intervention programs for children with, or at-risk of, having a disability or poor developmental outcomes. It has implemented, supported, and coordinated one of the nation’s largest network of family support programs. Its communications have kept parents, faculty, practitioners and policymakers on the cutting edge of research evidence, its evaluations have contributed to program improvements, and it has provided dozens of students with research and practice experience. It has contributed research, practice, and policy knowledge to child welfare services around the world. And these projects have improved directly and indirectly the lives of countless children and families.

Why the Office of Child Development Has Worked

The growth and success of the Office are likely associated with several factors, some unique and some more general.

1. The Office has demonstrated that a facilitative unit requires senior personnel who command the trust and respect of faculty, agency directors, policymakers, and others to devote full time to creating collaborations and leading such a unit. Collaborations do not occur spontaneously. They require someone to take the lead and see them through, which occurs best when someone is employed, directed, and paid to do precisely that.

“We were able to attract staff who were interdisciplinary and senior, so they walked in the door with a lot of experience and respect,” Groark said. ‘The people who have been hired are on the cutting edge. They keep a finger on the pulse of the community by participating on task forces, boards of directors, policy councils, and committees of all kinds. That allows us to listen to the heartbeat of society and know what the next issue is so that we can assist policymakers and program managers as soon as the issue arises.”

2. Within the Office itself, an emphasis on collaborative decision-making has allowed staff to practice among themselves the coalition building that they try to forge among faculty and agencies outside the Office.

3. An attitude of service has also proven to be effective. The Office, has been able to hire, nurture, and maintain a staff who are passionate about improving the lives of children and families.

4. A prominent, active, representative Local Advisory Board provides support and perspectives on the role of the Office within the University, community, state, and nation. The Local Board includes representatives from all of the Office’s constituencies: administration, faculty, service agencies, funders, and policymakers. A National Advisory Board provides broader perspectives on the potential role of the Office nationally and its role in the University.

5. Although the Office has been successful at raising outside funds, it cannot survive without core funding from the University and the Pittsburgh community, especially the Howard Heinz Endowment and the R. K. Mellon Foundation among others.

6. The Office has remained responsive and flexible to the changing needs of its partners within the University and in the community. The Office's domain is not more specific than children, youth, and families, so the Office can move in directions that are defined by its partners, believing that true collaborations are partnerships from the beginning in which all participants contribute to the plan as well as its implementation.

7. A unit that seeks to build collaborations and partnerships between university and community must genuinely respect and value the diverse skills of faculty, service professionals, and policy makers as well as parents, community, members, and staff, some of whom have doctorates and others have community and practice knowledge and street smarts. The Office has consciously tried to create and maintain internally a culture of respect for diversity along many dimensions.

The Future

In the next few years, the Office will face at least two of the most challenging circumstances in its history. First, the financial climate for governmental and private funding of health, education, and welfare services for low-resource children and families will be as bleak over the next few years as it has ever been in OCD's history. Second, most of the Office's current leadership are likely to retire in the next 3-6 years.

We have taken a variety of steps toward succession planning. Ken Smythe-Leistico has been appointed Assistant Director and participates in all programmatic and administrative affairs of the Office. Further, younger staff are being given increased responsibilities and trained to assume the lead on several major projects, and the Office is taking the initiative to collaborate with the increasing number of faculty with applied interests to enrich our knowledge base and expand the types of funding for our projects.

Financially, the Office has frequently faced funding cutbacks over the years and has voluntarily spun off large projects, yet its budget has increased and been maintained over the last decade, for example.

It is the commitment, passion, and flexibility of the Office’s staff to move in new directions in tune with the times that will continue to lift the Office over bumps in the road and to contribute to the health, education, and welfare of children and families of the future.