New director faces challenges at Illinois DCFS

Monday, May 5, 2003

CHICAGO -- The man picked to lead the state's Department of Children and Family Services is taking a big job at a tough time, and many child welfare advocates who don't even know him are jumping to offer suggestions.

Provide more mental and physical health services for children in the agency's care. Improve educational services. Hire additional case workers.

But the biggest challenge for Bryan Samuels may be managing the huge bureaucracy he just inherited, one that can make the difference between life and death for 21,000 of the state's most neglected or abused children.

He must administer a budget of about $1.4 billion while the state faces a huge fiscal deficit, and lead a department with about 3,700 employees who are scattered in 100 offices statewide.

"It's an enormously challenging task. It requires a combination of hands-on managing skill and a broad vision of what children need," said Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, a child welfare watchdog.

Samuels' predecessor, Jess McDonald, has been credited with leading a major turnaround in performance of the much-scrutinized agency. In McDonald's nine-year tenure, DCFS moved about 30,000 children into adoptive homes or returned them to their families. The agency also slashed the number of abuse and neglect cases, improved caseworker education and reduced the size of caseloads, advocates said.

Some who have worked with Samuels say the 36-year-old possesses the traits he will need.

"He thinks very broadly, he feels deeply about important social justice issues, he is very analytical and he is a person of enormous integrity," said Paula Wolff, who has worked with Samuels at Chicago Metropolis 2020 and in Illinois state government. "Those are the very things that one needs to be successful in that job."

Other child welfare specialists in the state are withholding judgment.

"I have to see him in action," said Wolf, who monitors DCFS as part of a 1991 federal consent decree.

Some advocates are concerned that the children in the agency's care, down from a high of 50,000 in 1997, have more serious problems than a decade ago.

"It's a much more difficult population, much more needy population and it's much more challenging for DCFS," said Dr. Ronald Davidson, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who evaluates private agencies that house children in DCFS care. "The whole nature of the work has changed in the past decade."

He said the agency now must improve mental health services for children, especially high-risk wards who are difficult to place permanently with families.

Samuels also must deal with a lawsuit filed last month by Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy to stop multiple moves of children in foster care.

Other problems facing the agency include recent criticism for losing track of hundreds of children, and for cases of abuse and neglect in Chicago. The cases include a 6-year-old girl who was beaten to death while trying to break up a domestic dispute and a 3-year-old boy who was found chained by the neck to a bed.

There are also problems at Maryville Academy, the state's largest facility for treating abandoned and abused children. Two employees were fired and a third resigned in December over the facility's response to the alleged rape of an 11-year-old girl.

Samuels has worked at human services agencies but has no specific professional experience in child-welfare issues.

That doesn't matter to Margaret Berglind, president and chief executive officer of The Child Care Association of Illinois, an association of volunteer not-for-profit child welfare agencies.

"There will be enough competent people within the department to help him," she said. "The fact that he's bringing in a new perspective can be helpful."

Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who tapped Samuels for the job last Monday and named him chairman of a task force that studied DCFS, said Samuels' "unique life experience" growing up at the Glenwood School for Boys in the south Chicago suburbs will help him.

"He knows first hand what challenges young people face when they are removed from their homes," the governor said.

Samuels' widowed mother, who struggled with mental illness and chemical dependency, turned over the care of her three sons to the all-boys school when Samuels was in second grade. He lived there until he graduated from high school, an experience that he said will help him lead DCFS.

"There's an empathy there and appreciation for challenges that kids are faced with, particularly kids that are raised on the kindness of strangers," Samuels said. "To the extent to which I can bring that perspective, and it will be reflected in the decisions I make, I think the system will be better for it."

Samuels, who will earn $127,600 annually, earned a bachelor's in economics from the University of Notre Dame and a master's in public policy from the University of Chicago, where he is also an adjunct professor at the school of social service and administration.

He began his career in the early 1990s working as a liaison between then-Illinois Gov. James Thompson and several human service agencies.

Samuels later worked as a deputy director of health and human services in Nebraska and helped Missouri meet requirements for federal welfare programs. He also worked with state agencies in Rhode Island and Kentucky to create school-based family resource centers.

Most recently, Samuels focused on juvenile justice and housing issues as a program manager for Chicago Metropolis 2020, a nonprofit civic group that promotes regional planning.

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