Bryan Samuels, a child welfare at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who lived in congregate care as a child, is leaving the government to become executive director of the Chapin Hall Center for Children, a 28-year-old research and policy shop at the University of Chicago.
“Everything I’ve done in D.C. has been about moving child welfare from a philosophical platform to an evidence-based platform,” said Samuels, who will take the helm at Chapin Hall on Sept. 16. “We want to build a child welfare system that children benefit from having been involved in, and we can’t do that without science.”
The hallmark of Samuels’ tenure has been an increased attention to child well-being as a measuring stick for success in child welfare services. Whereas the traditional tenets of safety and permanency mostly relate to the behavior of adults, particularly parents, child well-being requires an attention to the development of children, regardless of their being returned to birth parents, placed into a kinship arrangement or into foster care.
Samuels continued to promote well-being as a fundamental focus of the system, and ACYF required an explanation of well-being strategies in many solicitations for federal funding.
Major child welfare groups, including the Alliance for Children and Families and the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), have endorsed Samuels’ attempt to elevate the issue.
“I now believe child well-being is, and should be, our paramount goal,” said Alliance CEO Susan Dreyfus in a recent Alliance report, adding that “safety and the experience of permanency are inherent in the well-being of a child.”
In its recently released National Blueprint for Excellence in Child Welfare, CWLA also endorses the notion of placing child well-being on par with safety and permanency.
Samuels was among the early slate of nominees announced by President Barack Obama, and was confirmed as commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) in 2010.
ACYF is a subdivision of the Administration on Children and Families at HHS. It is home to the Children’s Bureau, which oversees most of the federal government’s child welfare funds, as well as the high-profile Head Start program.
Samuels returns to his home state after nearly three years in Washington. He joined the administration from the Chicago Public School system, where he served as chief of staff during a two-year span in which youth violence rocked the city. Before that, he oversaw the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, widely considered one of the best child welfare systems in the country.
“He will bring with him a national perspective, profound insights into the policy impact of Chapin Hall’s research, and deep familiarity with Chapin Hall and the University of Chicago,” said John Mark Hansen, chair of the Chapin Hall board of directors.
Samuels also has personal experience with the child welfare system, having spent 11 years living in congregate care during his childhood.
“When I got there, I was a pretty angry kid. I was pretty confused about why mom couldn’t pull her act together and why I couldn’t live at home,” Samuels said in an interview with Chronicle Editor-in-Chief John Kelly, in 2011. “I lived hoping … she’d finally, one day, figure out what she was going to do and how she was going to fulfill all the promises she made. By the time I got to sixth or seventh grade, I realized, you know what? This was as good as it was going to get.”
At Chapin Hall, Samuels succeeds Acting Executive Director Cheryl Smithgall, who stepped in this past April for the departing Matthew Stagner, who is now director of human services research at Mathematica. Smithgall will return to her post as a research fellow.
John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change