Samuels, Outgoing ACYF Chief for Obama, Challenged Priorities of Child Welfare System

Congressmen, policy wonks and child welfare advocates gathered at the Capitol Visiting Center this week to send Bryan Samuels home to Chicago in style.

Samuels, who has led the Administration for Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) for the Obama administration since February of 2010, takes the helm on Monday at University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for Children, a 28-year-old research and policy shop focused on child welfare issues.

Among the guests in attendance: U.S. Reps. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) Tom Marino (R-Penn.), Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and Jim Langevin (D-R.I.).

One would have to consider Samuels among the most qualified people to ever take a top youth-related federal position. He spent his formative years in a group boarding school and home as his mother struggled with addiction; technically not in foster care, as it was a voluntary placement.

He would go on to lead the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services, and then served as chief of staff for Arne Duncan, now Obama’s education secretary, when Duncan was CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

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.

Bryan Samuels with Rep. Danny Davis at Samuels' Capitol Hill send-off this week
Bryan Samuels with Rep. Danny Davis at Samuels’ Capitol Hill send-off this week

His guiding philosophy at ACYF has been that regardless of a decision to place a child in foster care or keep them at home, child welfare agencies ought to be in the business of developing the social and emotional skills of youths known to them.

Samuels discussed this with me back in 2011. I had just seen him speak to a group of funders focused on youth aging out of foster care, and had challenged them in the speech to think more broadly about what causes bad outcomes for that population. I asked him to explain what he meant in more depth:

“What I’m saying is, when it relates to outcomes for kids, our lens is so narrow by only looking at kids who age out and making judgment about what the child welfare system should or should not have done. I think it is the wrong way to look at it. Let’s pull out the lens and look at all abused/neglected children and the kinds of outcomes they achieve.

We want to assume that there’s a direct relationship between foster care, aging out and bad outcomes instead of looking at maltreatment and saying, ‘What is about maltreatment that produces bad adult outcomes?’

We ought to challenge the assumption that it is the child welfare experience itself that is causing bad outcomes instead of the maltreatment being the root cause. It would call into question the fact that, if you’re in out-of-home placement you have a greater likelihood of getting access to mental health services than if you’re kept in-home.

That kind of implies that these kids are more vulnerable to bad outcomes than are the kids who remain in in-home services. But if maltreatment, regardless of where you were placed, produces bad outcomes for adults, then you’d say there’s an imperative to make sure all kids who are maltreated, whether they’re in a home or in out-of-home care, are equally as important for receiving services.”

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at