It's a tough job, but someone has to do it


New DCFS chief faces critics and the challenge By Sarah Karp

Photos courtesy of DCFS Bryan Samuels talks to a young girl at the Illinois State Fair and (above) an adult interested in meeting the new director.

Bryan Samuels' dispassionate demeanor was evident as he struggled to get the attention of teenage foster children at a luncheon.

Samuels, the new director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, continued his speech as if the audience cared-even though Samuels was competing with the din of clacking silverware.

The young people, many of them disillusioned after spending a lifetime in foster care, seemed unimpressed with Samuels' story about his elderly aunt learning to drive.

For the 37-year-old Samuels, a small-built African American with tightly cropped hair and thick glasses covering charcoal-colored eyes, the moment reflects the daily challenges he faces in his new job. Samuels is confronting many skeptics who, like those teens, have yet to be impressed.

Is it black and white? In May, Samuels took over one of the stormiest positions in state government. Charged with the crucial task of protecting vulnerable children, the department routinely makes controversial decisions. Mistakes at DCFS-one of the largest child welfare agencies in the country-can result in front-page articles, angst within the governor's office and intense pressure on the director. In the worst cases, children die.

In addition to its complicated clientele, the agency also has a complicated relationship with the community. Many in the black community, where DCFS is most involved, believe the department tears apart black families.

For years, many African-American political and child welfare leaders have called for a black DCFS director. The calls intensified after Rod Blagojevich was elected governor with the support of black voters. When Samuels, a surprise choice and an outsider in the close-knit world of child welfare experts and advocates, was appointed, some quietly said his race might have been a factor.

Samuels points out that the governor also interviewed white candidates. Still, he says it is important to him that the reputation of DCFS improve in the African-American community.

"There is a strongly held belief that the agency didn't serve its kids, and I don't have any proof to the contrary," Samuels says. "I suspect that, over time, they see that the changes I am pursuing put children of color in a better position. They will see that I am trying to get the system right."

Samuels says he will take a "hard look" at why DCFS has one of the most pronounced racial disparities in the country. Right now, black children make up two-thirds of those in foster care but only one-fifth of the state's total population under 18.

He's moving ahead with plans to put more energy and money into making the department a more nurturing place for children. His top priority is reuniting kids with their parents. In 2002, DCFS sent one of every 10 foster children who left the system back to their homes. The others were adopted, placed in permanent guardianship or were old enough to move out on their own.

He likes to compare DCFS staff to weathermen. "We have to predict what the likelihood of rain is," he says. "All of it is a gamble. We try to make the right decisions, but sometimes we are wrong."

Samuels' plans may not seem groundbreaking but they represent a significant shift from the previous administration. And Samuels will have to navigate carefully. His predecessor, Jess McDonald, was widely praised for cutting the state's astronomically large foster care caseload by 59 percent. In doing so, he reduced the average cases per worker from 72 to 19.

When McDonald assumed the post in 1994, the agency was considered the worst in the country and was under a federal court consent degree mandating change. But in 2000, McDonald won the Innovations in Government Award from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. During his tenure, Illinois became the first statewide agency to be licensed by the Council on Accreditation.

"Before, the system was in chaos," says Ben Wolf, the associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, who has monitored DCFS for more than 15 years as a result of the court decree.

Now, some experts and advocates are concerned Samuels' new priorities could undermine the advances of the past decade.

"Samuels seems like a smart man, but he is new to the department and he will have a steep learning curve," Wolf says.

Yet many are quietly applauding Samuels.

To many advocates working with the people most involved in the system-those living in Chicago's poor, black neighborhoods- the success of McDonald, who is white, seem hollow. They contend that the department reduced the caseload by pressuring people to adopt, even when it was not good for the child or the family.

"I think that Jess McDonald had a great mind, but he lacked sensitivity," says Bamani Obadele, who served as the governor's liaison to DCFS from January to July and now serves as the department's deputy director of external affairs. Obadele, a long-time community activist.

Meeting the challenge Samuels, during several interviews, will not directly criticize McDonald but stresses "adoption is still on the table" and bristles at the suggestion that his changes could reverse progress.

Samuels and those who work with him point out the two directors are very different. Regardless of what people thought about his policies, McDonald, whom everyone called by his first name, was gregarious, fiery and politically savvy. Samuels is thoughtful and a good manager, but many say he is not particularly passionate.

Samuels would like his staff to call him "Bryan," but he realizes his serious personality doesn't lend itself to that. He's adjusting to people calling him "director."

Samuels says he took the job because it is a challenge. Still, as he grudgingly answers questions about his family, his decision appears more complicated.

When he was a baby, his father died, and his mother, who had an undiagnosed mental illness, became addicted to drugs. Realizing she couldn't care for her children, he and his two brothers were sent to the Glenwood School for Boys, a private south suburban boarding school.

He was never a ward of the state, but Samuels says his experience helps him empathize with the children. "You know the challenges of trying to accept the reality of being separated from your mother, and trying to figure out how you go forward and how you build a life," he says.

Samuels got his bachelor's degree at the University of Notre Dame and a master's in public policy from the University of Chicago, but his dream was to run Glenwood. Samuels says the school tried to treat everyone fairly, which made it hard to gauge the needs and progress of each child. He wanted to change that and make the school "a really cool place for kids."

After graduating in 1990, Samuels spent the next decade working as an administrator for the human services departments in Illinois and Nebraska and as a consultant to other state governments, evaluating programs for families at risk of having their children removed.

Just before being named director, he worked on juvenile justice issues at Chicago Metropolis 2020, a civic organization. He earned a reputation there for being "very serious about public service and extremely thoughtful," says Paula Wolff, a senior executive at the organization.

This winter, Blagojevich named Samuels to head a taskforce on DCFS.

Think education and unification Samuels wants to improve the quality of life for children in foster care. "I want to make sure that they have the same opportunity as middle-class kids to go to the circus and the museum and the zoo," he says.

Samuels wants foster children to do well in school because excelling academically was one of the things that steadied him. DCFS does not keep statistics on the educational outcomes of its children, but a recent study found that wards in Chicago Public Schools perform worse than their classmates.

In the area of education, Samuels says, DCFS currently does "a horrible job."

Samuels is more uncertain about whether he needs to work on improving the quality of foster parents themselves, which is much more controversial.

Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy says this is evidence the quality of foster parents has declined.

In the past, McDonald blasted Murphy's criticism as discriminatory, saying that, between the lines, Murphy was criticizing black foster parents. While some advocates generally support relative placements because they carry on a strong African American tradition of kinfolk stepping in to raise the children of troubled parents.

Still, Murphy strongly backed a ban that McDonald put on foster parents over the age of 65, and he was livid this summer when Samuels lifted it.

Samuels said he rescinded the policy because he believes agencies have the capacity to decide who is capable of caring for a child. But Samuels does not discount Murphy's assessment. "I agree with Patrick that we should be looking at the best interest of the child, whether it is in a relative's home or a foster home," he says. He has asked his staff to examine the issue.

Shaquita Ramey, a former foster child who's now 22, said she doesn't feel she was served well by the system as a child in foster care. After being removed from her mother's house when she was 10, she spent five years being passed back and forth between relatives, foster homes and shelters.

Eventually, Ramey realized she wanted better for herself. She got a placement at a group home and enrolled in an alternative high school.

Now she works as a mentor for other foster children. She said she has come to believe that her experience was typical for wards of the state. She would like to send a message to the new director: "Listen to the foster children, and don't just place children with the first person who is willing to accept them. Try to find a place for them where they can be loved and wanted."

Another tricky proposition is investing money in uniting biological parents with their children. In the past four years, the budget for reunification and foster care dropped 23 percent. Money for adoption and guardianship went up 140 percent.

Caseworkers stopped pushing reunification a decade ago, when 3-year-old Joseph Wallace was hanged by his mentally ill mother in their West Side apartment two months after he returned from foster care. Then a 1997 federal law instructed states to give biological parents about a year before permanently losing custody. Since then, Illinois children have been adopted out of the child welfare system or moved into permanent guardianship in numbers greater than any other state.

Some saw this as positive, but others felt the state was giving up on families too fast.

"Valuing African American families and their children has not been part of this system," said Terry Solomon, executive director of the African American Family Commission, formed by the state. "The same thing continues today. It is reflected in how they look at African American families and if it is worth investing in it."

Samuels can't shrug off the federal law. Instead, he will "test the premise" that some mental health and sub stance abuse programs can help families in a timely fashion, he says. "The real challenge, as I see it, is finding those programs that are effective within the small window that we have to get families healthy," he says.

Donaco Collins, whose 8-year-old son has been in foster care for three years, believes the problem stems from the mindset of judges and caseworkers towards parents. "We don't feel like we have a chance," Collins says. "DCFS fights more for the foster parent than for the natural parent." This is especially true, he believes, when it comes to people like him-a disabled black man who lives on Chicago's West Side.

To some degree, his contention is backed by DCFS data. About 6 percent of Cook County's foster children were reunited in 2002, compared with about 25 percent in other parts of the state. And the struggle to reunify families is intertwined with the fact that black children make up a disproportionate share of the state's wards.

"We have to figure out where kids get stuck," Samuels says. "We have to look at the cultural differences in the programs where we are purchasing services. Right now, we have a one-size-fits-all system. But we need to be culturally responsible to move toward healthiness faster."

The Chicago Reporter and Chicago Parent, together again at last

This article represents the beginning of a partnership between Chicago Parent and The Chicago Reporter.

Written by Sarah Karp, a mother of two who covers children and family issues for the Reporter, another version of the story will also appear in the Reporter’s September/October issue.

Founded in 1972, the Reporter is a non-profit investigative monthly that identifies, analyzes and reports on the social, economic and political issues in metropolitan Chicago with a special focus on race and poverty.

To read more, or to subscribe, please call (312) 673-3871 or click on The Reporter is published by the Community Renewal Society.


Kathryn Monroe and Desiree Evans helped research this article. Both are Chicago Reporter interns; Monroe is also a former Chicago Parent intern. Sarah Karp is a mother of two who covers children and family issues for the Chicago Reporter.

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