President Barack Obama has tapped a veteran Chicago youth services leader to run the Administration on Children, Youth and Families – a federal agency expected to play a key role in holding state foster care systems accountable and fostering child welfare reform.
Bryan H. Samuels, the nominee, is a former director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and a former top aide to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan when Duncan led Chicago Public Schools.
Samuels is regarded as an effective child welfare administrator who relies as much on studies and research in making decisions as he does on his own experience growing up at a residential school from age 7 on.
"You don't get people with his background and his abilities in that position," said Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network in Chicago.
"He really understood the issues because he lived it," Wuest said.
Samuels ran the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services from 2003 to 2006. During that time, those familiar with his work say, he helped continue to reduce caseloads and the number of children in state care - a trend initiated by his predecessor, Jess McDonald.
Mark Courtney, a University of Washington social work professor who knew Samuels when they both taught at the University of Chicago, credited Samuels with making the government a better and more caring parent for children in long-term care.
"I would say that Bryan Samuels is one of the first public child welfare administrators in the country to make child well-being a major focus of the child welfare system," Courtney said, explaining that, historically, child welfare administrators have focused mostly on safety and permanency.
"Taking care of children, focusing on what their needs are while in care, was something Bryan focused on and he was very successful at it," Courtney said.
Part of the reason, Courtney and others say, is because of Samuels' experience growing up at a residential school for children.
The White House said as much in a statement about Samuels.
"His commitment to public service is largely motivated by his own success in overcoming great personal hardship during his eleven and half years of growing up in a residential school for disadvantaged children," a White House statement stated. "This experience helped shape his commitment to serve children who lived in foster care and reinforced his belief that dedicated people and well-designed programs can make a dramatic impact on the lives of at-risk youth."
As director of Illinois DCFS, the White House said, Samuels accomplished a number of systemic reforms. They included implementing comprehensive assessments of all children entering care, redesigning transitional and independent living programs, and creating a "child location unit" to track all runaway youth.
He also helped the agency establish what the White House said were the "lowest caseload ratios for case managers in the nation" and decreased the use of residential treatment or group homes by 20 percent.
Samuels taught at University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration. He holds a Master's Degree from the University of Chicago and a Bachelor's of Arts Degree from the University of Notre Dame.
The Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) is part of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF).
ACF oversees a wide swath of entitlements and domestic programs. ACYF oversees two of those programs: The Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) and the Children's Bureau.
The Children's Bureau manages the matching funds that go to states for child welfare services, chief among them the Title IV-E foster care funds. Children's Bureau also oversees the adoption incentive and assistance programs, and conducts Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSR) of the 50 states child welfare systems.
Many of these operations will come sharply into focus during Obama's tenure. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoption Act makes significant changes to how states can use federal funds, but that process needs clarifying.
Every state failed its first CFSR, submitted a program improvement plan, and some have already failed again in the second round. It will likely fall to Obama's Children's Bureau to put teeth to that review process and actually penalize states for not improving. And that won't be popular, because there are plenty of advocates who think the CFSR methodology is far from flawless.
FYSB funds ventures including youth development, services to homeless and runaway youth, abstinence education and mentoring children of prisoners. The budget quadrupled to more than $350 million under former President George W. Bush.