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In memoriam: Penelope Trickett, 73

The professor of social work and psychology was best known for research on the impact of familial sexual abuse

Penelope Trickett
Penelope Trickett, photographed in 2000, was known for her research on female adolescents who had suffered from abuse. (Photo/Irene Fertik)

Penelope Trickett, the David Lawrence Stein/Violet Goldberg Sachs Professor of Mental Health at the USC School of Social Work, died July 15 in San Pedro of complications from heart failure. She was 73.

“This is indeed a sad moment,” said USC Provost Professor William Vega, executive director of the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging. “We have lost a truly dedicated and talented colleague who gave everything for the important social justice issues she was committed to.”

A professor of social work and psychology and a developmental psychologist, Trickett was best known for groundbreaking research on the psychobiological impact of familial sexual abuse on female adolescents and young adults.

A singular study

For nearly 30 years, Trickett and her research team monitored the developmental trajectory of a group of girls who suffered sexual abuse as children. The study found that the girls, now women, were more likely to be depressed, abuse drugs and alcohol, and engage in self-mutilation. It also found that the women were more likely to place their own children at risk for abuse, neglect and developmental issues.

One unique aspect of the study, which earned Trickett and her team the 2012 Excellence in Research Award from the Society for Social Work and Research, was its findings regarding levels of cortisol, a hormone released during stressful situations. The study found that as children, the victims had higher levels of cortisol. By adolescence, however, the levels were found to be below normal, a condition that has been linked to problems such as antisocial behavior and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as a number of physical issues.

Trickett was also the principal investigator of another longitudinal study focused on the impact of neglect and other forms of child maltreatment on adolescent development, funded by the National Institutes of Health. At USC, she directed a university-wide interdisciplinary violence research initiative, and in 2013, served as lead faculty for Master of Social Work students taking part in an immersion program in Washington, D.C. The program, which was the first national immersion program for the School of Social Work, focused on child development and social policy.

She was a very humble woman. I am just now learning a lot about her that makes me feel so proud to be her daughter.

Katechen Trickett

“She very, very rarely spoke of any of her amazing accomplishments,” said Trickett’s daughter, Katechen Trickett. “I can remember one awards ceremony at USC to which she invited my sister and me, and I was taken aback at how she was being honored because I had no idea. She was a very humble woman. I am just now learning a lot about her that makes me feel so proud to be her daughter.”

Longtime service

Born in New York, Trickett moved to Washington, D.C., as a child. She graduated from the Bryn Mawr College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She received her PhD from the New School for Social Research in New York. Trickett began her research career in the psychology department at Yale University in 1976 and then became a senior fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md. She later joined the psychology faculty at USC, and in 1989 joined the School of Social Work, providing 27 years of service.

She served as a member and later chair of the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Children, Youth and Families and was member-at-large of the executive committee of the Section on Child Maltreatment of the APA’s Division of Child, Youth and Family Services. Among her many accolades were the Independent Scientist Award from the National Institute of Mental Health for her work “The Developmental Consequences of Child Abuse and Violence” and the Sterling C. Franklin Faculty Award for Research and Scholarship from the School of Social Work.

We all have lost an essential leader and an inspiration to our school, university and the world.

Charles Kaplan

“We all have lost an essential leader and an inspiration to our school, university and the world. She was so beloved by her colleagues and students for her gentle ways and her resoluteness in getting things created and done with such elegance,” said Charles Kaplan, research professor and associate dean of research at USC.

In addition to daughter Katechen Trickett, Penelope Trickett is survived by daughter Jennifer Trickett and was preceded in death by husband John Horn, a professor of psychology at USC, in 2006.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in Trickett’s name to the South Bay Center for Counseling’s Preventative and Aftercare Program at 540 N. Marine Ave., Wilmington, CA 90744. A private memorial service will be held at her home in Rancho Palos Verdes at a later date.

A USC memorial service will be held in the fall.

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In memoriam: Penelope Trickett, 73

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