Q&A: Bryan Samuels, Obama’s Top Child Welfare Appointee

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Bryan Samuels, who has served for more than a year now as President Barack Obama’s Commissioner for the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, has a rare breadth of perspective on the field over which he presides. He sits atop the agency that provides federal funds for foster care, family preservation and homeless runaway services.

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.

But it is his upbringing that renders Samuels unique from the majority of presidential appointees. He was removed from his mother’s home at a young age, and placed into foster care, from which he entered adulthood.

His experience in care was anomalous to the tragic path of many other teens who make that leap. Older foster youths are cycled through a high number of different placements during their time in the system; Samuels was in the same one for 11 years.

Samuels was sent to congregate care, the worst placement option available in the eyes of many child welfare advocates. Yet he credits the consistency of the staff with quelling the anger that had built up in him as a young child.

Appropriately, the experience drives his philosophy today. One of Samuels’ quieter priorities at ACYF has been to foster a conversation about whether the foster care experience is the primary cause of the struggles for youth who age out.

Samuels sat down for an extensive interview with Youth Today:

Youth Today: As a foster child, you spent 11 years in the same group placement. That’s pretty rare.

Bryan Samuels: “It was an unusual experience. The average kid at the school was there for two years. So obviously I saw a lot of kids come and go. I had two older brothers who were also there. There were a lot of adults at the school who were pretty constant. I just came to understand that as the way I was going to grow up, and the way I was going to learn how to exist in the world.

“At the end of the day, the continuity was really good for me. 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. 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.”

YT: What’s the difference between life here at ACYF and your previous posts in Chicago?

Samuels: “The biggest difference between those jobs and this one is the amount of sleep I get at night. When you’re running a school system, you’re worried about, ‘Are all the doors going to be  opened in the mornings, are all the boilers going to work, are all the teachers going to show up? All the things that come with running the third largest school district in the country. You get calls when kids get shot, or you get calls when people get arrested.

“As a child welfare agency director it was the same thing. You work very long hours, but when  you’d get home at night your job wasn’t done. There was always a kid on the run, always a bad story that was going to be in the paper the next day.

“Here I get all the intellectual challenges, I get the strategic and policy things. But when I leave here at 8 or 8:30 at night, I’m not going home worrying about bad stuff happening to kids. It’s  refreshing.

“The job of running a child welfare agency was the worst job I ever had, and the most rewarding job I will ever have. It’s just that taxing. I would go home Friday night and go to bed, I’d usually get up at 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday.”

YT: How do you stay connected with what is going on outside Washington?

Samuels: “In some respects, it’s a real challenge. I get out of this office as much as possible, I get lots of invitations to go out and talk to folks, but even that doesn’t allow you to connect to the day-to-day stuff. My wife has to remind me of that every evening. She’s still back in Chicago, so we usually spend an hour or two on the phone every night reconnecting.”

YT: You were just getting to the District of Columbia when Derrion Albert was killed on his way home from school (click here to read about that story]…

Samuels: “I had just moved here when that happened. The two years I was at CPS, the first year we had 40-something kids killed, and the second year we had 40-something kids killed. If you broaden the lens a little more, during those two years, we also had another 500 students who were shot, they weren’t killed but they were shot.

“We really struggled in both of those school years to say, ‘What can we possibly do to slow the amount of violence that went on?’ To see life get stamped out that early and to feel like adults aren’t having an influence on the way young people behave was extremely challenging and frustrating.

“Finding the kid who’s going to create the next problem … is like finding a needle in a haystack. But finding the kids who are impacted by all the violence and intervening in their lives so that they don’t replicate the anger and aggression that many of the shooters do, those are kids we ought to be doing something about.”

YT: What did you make of the New York City case, where two child welfare workers were charged with homicide in connection with a child who died in September? (click here to read about that story)

Samuels: “I’m not a lawyer, so don’t have a legal opinion on whether that’s the right way or wrong way to handle it. What I would say is, the child welfare system in this country struggles to find good people and struggles to keep good people. When you have something like what happened in New York happen, it has a chilling effect on a system’s ability to get and keep good people. When I read that story. that was what I immediately thought about.

“When you have a bad story like that, folks don’t come sign up for the next job opportunity. [Current employees] say, ‘I can go work this hard someplace else and not have to apologize to everybody because I’m affiliated with the field.

“On that story, that was my gut reaction. It was less about how do I understand the legal implications, more about, ‘Boy, that’s going to make it harder to find the next crop of talented people.’ People are going to take the opportunity to retire, they’re going to take that next job just so they’re not associated with a circumstance that was really unfortunate.

“In some respects the child welfare system has made a great deal of progress. It’s smaller, it has fewer children of color in the system, kids stay a shorter period of time. But at the end of day, it’s the stories like this in New York City that define what a child welfare agency is [to the public] and what they ought to think about it.”

YT: A number of states, including Illinois, are considering a merger of their juvenile justice and child welfare agencies, mostly to save money in tough budget times. Good or bad idea?

Samuels: “I think it’s a bad idea. Let me say it differently. What I would say is, the needs of children in foster care systems are in many instances different than the needs of kids in the juvenile justice system. I’ve read the studies, I appreciate that there’s an overlap. But the child welfare system’s primary responsibility is and should be to address the damage and harm of abuse and neglect, and to try to promote healing and recovery for children who’ve seen really bad stuff happening.

“What child welfare systems have to do is to get more focused, more sophisticated in their interventions. The idea that we ought to broaden the mission is the wrong thing. Right now, state child welfare agencies have to get much better at the business that they’re already responsible for. Giving them other responsibilities and growing the population of kids they’re responsible for, to me, doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

YT: Was the Illinois child abuse registry helpful to you?

Samuels: “I thought the registry had great value to it. In Illinois, there’s a nuance to it in the sense that depending on what your offense is, you are placed on there for different lengths of time; so it really does depend on what your offense is.

"In Illinois, you have a right to appeal, so the state can’t just arbitrarily place you on there…and you have no redress.  To know that employers value being able to check when they were doing new hires to make sure they were or weren’t on that list, I think is valuable. We want to protect children, we don’t want children and offenders having lots of access to one another.

"Where we struggled was around youth offenders. Some youth offenders were placed on the registry following the letter of law. But it then barred them from being in certain locations, living in certain places.

"This was a minor problem, but there are a small number of children who are sexually abused or who are severely abused and the result of that is, they exhibit very risky sexual behavior. Some of those offenders get arrested, but they’re still in the foster care system. We struggled with, what were the available placement options where was it appropriate and inappropriate to place them?”

YT: Should we have a national version of this?

Samuels: “On balance, I think registries work. What I can’t say to you is that I know for certain that all other states operate the exact same kind.

“Unless you have great confidence that individual registries have the right names, are monitored in the right ways, [and] due process exists, then you’re creating a national one that just ties together good databases with bad ones.

“The idea of a national registry, in concept, makes sense. But if it is based on tying together registries from each of the states, I’d be reticent to sign on to that program until we could say that there is good continuity and consistency in terms of the quality of the data and the oversight of the databases, and what I know today wouldn’t suggest that we could meet that standard.”

Youth Today: The Bush Administration had two Senate-confirmed nominees under Joan Ohl, the woman who had your job, to head the Family and Youth Services Bureau and the Children’s Bureau. This administration has chosen not to fill those spots. Has that hampered you at all?

Bryan Samuels: “I don’t think it’s a disadvantage. I think the old structure of political appointees over each of the bureaus was also based on an even prior construction that also had [the Child Care Bureau] and Head Start reporting in to the same office. So instead of having just the two bureaus, this office was originally designed to have all four [Head Start, Child Care, FYSB and CB] reporting in.

“If you added together all of the staff in both bureaus we’re responsible for providing oversight to every day, it’s less than 400 individuals. I came from running a school system that had 40,000 teachers. The child welfare agency had 3,000 employees. It doesn’t feel like there’s a disadvantage to not having another layer of management.

“Rather than having two people … doing day-to-day management, we were given two positions to hire senior policy people. [Note: Sonali Patel is the policy person at FYSB, and Heidi McIntosh oversees the Children’s Bureau].

“Those two people allow me to have great input and oversight of where we’re going from a policy standpoint, and I think that is the bigger challenge.”

YT: Are you happy with the number of states that have implemented the optional components of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act? [Click here to read more about those options].

Samuels: “Happy? Not at all. Illinois was one of the states where youth can remain in care until 21. They complete their high school education, they move on to more stable employment training or college. We’d love more states to be able to make that commitment. If it was up to Bryan Samuels, [foster care until 21] wouldn’t be an option, it would be available to all youth.

“But I understand that, ultimately, the burden for doing that weighs heavily on states. And their ability to pay ought to be taken into consideration. I understand that they can’t afford to do it right now.”

YT: There is a lot of talk about the federal IV-E waivers, and whether those might be extended or even turned into some sort of permanent restructuring of federal funding someday. What’s your take on the waivers?

Samuels: “Waivers are a good thing. They are a way to experiment with existing policies. On the face of it, that added flexibility, for the purposes of innovation, … is really valuable. If waivers are limited to a small number of counties and states, you can’t have the big systemic impact you’d like to be able to have.

“One of the key components of waivers is that you trade flexibility for a commitment to maintaining your level of spending. So there’s a [maintenance of effort] requirement in the waiver process.

“One of the real challenges going forward [is]…it may be difficult for many states to enter into a waiver agreement because they want the flexibility, and at the same time keep the level of funding throughout the life of the waiver. States are increasingly reducing their commitment to child welfare, not increasing it, and that may make a waiver circumstances difficult to implement.”

YT: All children in foster care are automatically eligible for Head Start. A memo you wrote in January with Head Start Director Yvette Fuentes, said there are about 14,600 foster kids enrolled right now. Isn’t that a really low number?

Samuels: “It is a low number. I think in part, the primary explanation is that school readiness and improving educational outcomes, for a long time, weren’t a focus of the child welfare system. Fostering Connections was the most visible example of folks trying to raise education, elevating it to a status to say, ‘Yeah, foster youth ought to do better in school than they’re already doing.

“We wanted to highlight the low numbers. It’s not a requirement, and education hasn’t been a measure of success in child welfare. In Illinois, we adopted a state policy that said all kids [in foster care] who could be enrolled in Head Start, should be.  

“We had a ton of kids in Head Start [after the policy change]. Until you put it on people’s radar screens, I think it’s hard to expect more.”

YT: You mention education being a bigger part of child welfare services. What could be included in the pending revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would help youth involved in child welfare systems?

Samuels: “I’ll be careful here. My duties are unrelated to the Department of Ed[ucation], so I don’t want to be in a position of telling those folks what they ought to be doing.

“The big takeaway for me from working at the Chicago Public Schools and the child welfare agency was that those institutions seem to fail the same set of kids. We looked at where the child welfare kids were placed in the public school system. The highest concentration of kids…was in schools that performed the least well.

“I think anything we do in reauthorization that places emphasis on the lowest performing schools, any resources we invest in improving the academic skills [there] … would likely have the greatest impact on kids in the foster care system.

“That said, I think there are still things we can do in the child welfare system to get better outcomes. We have this disjunction in the Fostering Connections [Act]; the educational requirement there only relates to the child welfare system, doesn’t relate to the state educational entity. Ultimately in order to ensure educational stability and quick enrollment, there’s got to be a counter-veiling expectation at the school level that they are equally as accountable for educational stability as is the child welfare system.

“Whether it’s the reauthorization or some other vehicle, we’re going to keep poking around until we can find something that moves us in the direction of having state child welfare agencies and state departments of education working together to make sure kids get in school and stay in school.”

YT: What do you think the impact has been of Children’s Rights and other litigators who have brought class-action lawsuits against state and local child welfare systems?

Samuels: “[Illinois] operated under a consent decree. It required a real partnership with the monitor. It’s a mixed blessing. In some respects, it keeps you on notice, which is a good thing. It makes people assure that they’re meeting their basic obligations.

“The challenge is, going forward, in some respects, many of those consent decrees were entered into in an environment where there wasn’t a federal regulatory process to oversee how states were doing, and to require states to do better when they weren’t performing well. [Note: Samuels is referring to the Child and Family Services Review, started in 2000].

“There are a whole bunch of states that have consent decrees that precede the CFSR. The end result is, you often have a competition between the indicators that the monitors look at versus the indicators that the federal government is driving. Ultimately, we have to be able to find a way to reconcile those things.

“The lawsuit itself and the settlement in Illinois was about what services and how many services children received. The CFSR starts there, but it begins to say it’s not just the services, it’s the outcomes. We had this interesting dynamic emerge in Illinois where the court monitor was trying to move beyond just requiring the services to also now focusing on outcomes. It created a real tension, because the consent decree was about things we weren’t doing or providing.”

YT: You mentioned the CFSR.  I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who really likes it…

Samuels: “Right.”

YT: What do you see as the problems with it as a measurement process?

Samuels: “From day one, I had three primary concerns about way it worked. One is the…soundness of the methodology. There have been enough questions raised around the country about whether it’s methodologically sound that it’s not difficult for me to say that there’s work needed there to improve the system.

“The second area is: Are we looking at the right measures? In the current construct, the CFSR combines a whole bunch of different pieces of information, and it’s not clear to me they’re all equally important. But as a result of the way it’s designed, they get treated as if they’re all equally important. There are probably a smaller set of outcomes that ought to be given more attention.

“The third category is the accountability mechanisms. Just having sanctions as the way to motivate change … comes up a little bit short. I think we have to look at a broader array of levers for promoting change.”

YT: At a recent gathering of foundations that support programs to help youth transition from foster care into adulthood, you challenged the audience to question what exactly causes bad outcomes for those youth in adulthood. Can you explain your point again for our readers?

Samuels: “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.”