Hugh Mellon Excellence in Research Award: Dr. Rachel Birnbaum March 2016
The King’s University College Hugh Mellon Excellence in Research Award is named in honor of Dr. Hugh Mellon, late Associate Professor of Political Science at King’s University College at Western. This award is designed to recognize the scholarly work of a faculty member at King’s which reflects Dr. Mellon’s avid academic engagement, his pursuit of knowledge and its dissemination through publication, and his willingness to ever renew his research through innovative partnerships and consistent commitment to research excellence.
This year's recipient of the Hugh Mellon Excellence in Research Award is Social Work Professor, Dr. Rachel Birnbaum.
Dr. Rachel Birnbaum’s research focus in Family Studies transcends boundaries; overcoming the barriers separating the disciplines of Social Work and Law, bridging the gulf between theory and practice, and lessening the divide between policy development and desired social outcomes. The authority of her scholarship has been demonstrated along the gamut from disciplinary-relevant theoretical formulations and applications, to innovative policy and practice developments that have stood the test of experience. Dr. Birnbaum, Professor of Social Work at King’s University College holds a Ph.D. in Social Work and a Masters of Laws. She is an award winning scholar whose work has been recognized by myriad constituencies. Her scholarship is remarkable not only for its interdisciplinary nature, but also for its influence on the lives of Canadian children. Dr. Birnbaum’s research on children’s participation in separation and divorce is particularly significant for those vulnerable children and parents involved in high conflict family separations. Her scholarship is recognized for the analytical and practical instruments she and her collaborators have developed to address these volatile contexts. The practical application of theoretically innovative research for the benefit of at risk members of Canadian society manifested in her work is particularly embedded in issues of social justice.
This prolific scholar is highly acclaimed for her landmark commitment to evidence-based research that constantly and consistently tests the assumptions of policy makers and judicial representatives alike. She has authored or co-authored 7 books, 53 articles/chapters, and 15 national and international reports. Her work has been identified as socially significant and worthy of support by a number of funding agencies including SSHRC and CIHR, but also the Law Foundation of Ontario, Nuero DevNet (Industry Canada), and the Department of Justice, Canada. Her contributions to the field of Family Studies and the Law were honoured in 2014 when she was the recipient of the Stanley Cohen Distinguished Research Award conferred by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts based in Oregon USA. She is a sought-after scholar who has presented her research both nationally and internationally. In Canada she is regularly invited to present workshops and keynote addresses to varied organizations outside of academia, ranging from the Ministry of Attorney General, to diverse Law Association Conferences, to the Association of Family and Conciliations Courts.
Dr. Birnbaum’s colleagues from Social Work and Law as well as practitioners from various courts and agencies write highly of her contributions to many diverse aspects of the field. The theoretical paradigms she applies to her work consistently draw upon multidisciplinary knowledge. A reviewer wrote “She has been, and continues to be, recognized as a leading researcher, writer and educator on numerous significant family justice issues. Her work informs, in a highly effective manner, many important Canadian policies and decisions.” One of her most influential publications has been “One Judge for One Family: Differentiated Case Management for Families in Continuing Conflict,” Canadian Journal of Family Law. This research has had a marked impact on the ways in which high conflict families make their way through court proceedings. Her work on The Voice of the Child in Separation/Divorce Mediations and Other Alternative Dispute Resolution Processes was quoted in a very well-known and highly cited case that addresses children’s rights and their participation in proceedings. Her research on children’s rights in family law proceedings has had a tangible impact on court decisions in several Canadian jurisdictions and “was referred to favourably by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in its most recent concluding observations about Canada.”
One of the most innovative and important contributions that Dr. Birnbaum has brought to the study of families in conflict has been the development through her research of a Dimensions in Conflict for Separated Families Scale (DCSFS). Another of her reviewers wrote that this tool which was developed to distinguish “‘regular’ divorce and separation conflict from pathological levels of conflict’ is a very valuable contribution to the field of family studies” with the “potential to change the practice of family law, family therapy, court interventions…and the landscape of family scholarship.” Further reviews of this successful funding application suggested that “there has been relatively little progress internationally on defining and differentiating ‘high conflict families’ or developing diagnostic or assessment tools in order to direct families to the most appropriate interventions. Testing the validity, reliability and predictive power of such a tool…would make a substantial contribution to the field, not just in Canada but elsewhere.” Her colleagues and peers agree that “she has probably done more empirical work on Ontario’s family justice system than anyone else, and has had a significant influence on policy and practice.”
The pioneering nature of this work is reflected in a true eclecticism which transcends academic disciplines. Dr. Birnbaum argues that the boundaries dividing disciplines but also those separating agencies and different levels of court and government must be breached to serve the interests of the families caught in spirals of conflict and violence. Her extensive clinical practice experience and her agility in applying appropriate theoretical approaches and research methodologies to lived experiences have enabled her to test and hone her conclusions. Her work on children’s voices and their participation in family court proceedings has convinced participants from major social agencies and the courts to work together and approach these matters collaboratively in order to achieve the best possible outcomes.
The aim of Dr. Birnbaum’s professional life has been to integrate theory, research, and practice, in her scholarship as each inform and build upon the other. She continues to apply her research with interdisciplinary colleagues in law, medicine, psychology, and social work. Her expertise is reflected in her interdisciplinary contributions to two distinctive programs at King’s, Social Work and Childhood and Social Institutions. She is persistent in her desire to understand the role children can and should have within social and legal institutions and to exercise the power of evidence-based research to shape those institutions and their policies to allow for that level of participation. This scholarly focus makes her an ideal recipient of the Hugh Mellon Excellence in Research award.