No Easy Job: Illinois' child welfare agency faces daunting challenges

Oct 1, 2003

When Bryan Samuels became director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, he inherited an agency that looked to be on the upswing. The most hopeful sign: The number of state wards, which had reached 51,500 in 1997, has been sliced to some 20,000, thanks to a push for adoptions and subsidized guardianship.

That’s not to say that watching over the state’s most vulnerable children is getting easier. Or that it’s less difficult to run an agency that draws heavy media attention every time something goes awry. 

No, Samuels, who took over in April, faces plenty of challenges. For starters, the change in administration means the agency has lost valuable institutional memory. And, while the number of wards has gone down, many of those who remain are older and have serious emotional or mental problems, something Samuels knows well after heading Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s task force on that department last winter.

The children Samuels is responsible for often have more trouble in school. Many have been bounced from foster home to foster home without expectation of permanency — a problem that is the focus of a lawsuit against Children and Family Services filed this year by Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy.

Those children who have found adoptive parents aren’t always getting the necessary support in their new families. The flip side of the late 1990s boom in adoptions and subsidized guardianships is that some of those families are now struggling to survive.

Some children have simply disappeared through agency neglect, a problem that hit the headlines before Samuels stepped in. 

The new director also inherited Maryville Academy’s recent troubles. Maryville, the department’s largest residential services contractor, experienced a number of tragedies at its DesPlaines and Columbus/ Chicago facilities, including the suicide of a 14-year-old girl.

In short, Samuels and his new management team have their work cut out for them. But even the agency’s harshest critics hope they succeed, that fresh strategies turn out to be a positive force.

“I certainly think his heart is there,” says Robert F. Harris, chief deputy public guardian for Cook County, a critic of the agency’s pattern of putting kids in multiple foster placements. “So far, so good. I don’t know — we’ll see.”

The skepticism is reasonable. Illinois is one of the few states that has a statewide, rather than a county-based, child welfare system. The agency, with a $1.4 billion budget and 3,600 employees, is charged with keeping kids safe whether they live in the rolling hills of southern Illinois or the sprawling metropolis of greater Chicago.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, that system was spinning out of control. Families were stressed like never before. Cocaine-addicted babies were showing up at hospitals. Drug abuse, domestic violence, poverty and mental illness — still major problems in Illinois — were conspiring to tear families apart. 

Social workers were overloaded, sometimes juggling as many as 100 cases at once. Horrific tales showed up in newspapers and on the evening news, most notably that of 3-year-old Joseph Wallace of Chicago, who was abused and ultimately hanged in 1993 by his mentally ill mother. Amanda Wallace, a former ward of the state herself, had had numerous contacts with the department and the legal system before killing her child. 

Mindful of such horrors, officials yanked many children from their homes who might have safely stayed with their families had they gotten some assistance. Under the glare of public scrutiny, the agency gave little thought to keeping families intact.

“We had a system that didn’t have its eye on permanency,” says Nancy Ronquillo, president and CEO of the Children’s Home and Aid Society, which provides foster care and other services. “You saw kids in the foster care system for years and years and years.”

Much of that changed under Samuel’s predecessor, Jess McDonald, who led the agency as acting director for parts of 1990 and 1991, and as director from 1994 until last spring. Under his leadership, the state made huge strides in finding permanent homes for many wards. Some 30,500 wards of the state have been adopted or placed under subsidized guardianship over the past five years. Fewer kids were removed unnecessarily from their families. 

During that period, nearly 16,000 families were reunified. And, generally, children were kept safer. 

“[The department] went from a state of paralysis and chaos to really leading the country,” says Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union-Illinois. That group won a federal consent decree with Children and Family Services that outlines reforms that are still being worked on today, including limits on workloads for Children and Family Services investigators and stricter standards for taking children out of parental custody.

McDonald is credited with getting caseloads down to a more manageable level, and for using objective research to determine whether the agency is serving children well. McDonald, says Wolf, “was a very gifted and talented administrator who deserves all the awards and accolades.”

When Gov. Blagojevich cleaned house at Children and Family Services last spring, replacing seasoned staffers, Samuels and the agency lost some of that institutional memory. Then again, Wolf says, “any new leadership gives you the opportunity to rethink things and try new approaches.”

Samuels, a 37-year-old African-American who rose from a broken home on the South Side to earn degrees from two prestigious universities, brings a wealth of personal experience to the job. He was never a ward of the state, despite stories to the contrary. But he was the youngest of three boys whose father died when he was just 8 months old, and he knows firsthand how it feels when one’s parent simply can’t cope. His mother never abused or neglected him, he says, but she had substance abuse and mental health problems.

Realizing she couldn’t care for her children, she enrolled them at the 

residential Glenwood School for Boys in far south suburban Glenwood when Bryan was in second grade. The average stay at the school was about two and a half years; Bryan stayed for 11 an a half.

At first he showed his anger and frustration, “acting out” like many of the kids who are now in Children and Family Services’ care. He had to repeat the second grade because school officials thought he couldn’t read. A turning point came in fifth grade when he was transferred to the cottage of two houseparents who had three biological white children and an adopted Hispanic son. In one year of life with this diverse and loving family, Samuels learned to trust and get along with a wide variety of people, a skill that would serve him well in later years.

Ultimately, he rallied and turned on the charm. “I was mature enough to know that I was going to be stuck there and I needed to take advantage of all the resources and support that was available to me at Glenwood.”

He lived at Glenwood until he graduated from high school, then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in economics from Notre Dame Univer-sity and a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago. He spent a decade working in Illinois and six other states in the areas of health, human services and child welfare. Most recently, he worked as a juvenile justice and housing policy expert for Chicago Metropolis 2020, a nonprofit organization created by The Commercial Club of Chicago to promote regional planning, and as an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago.

Samuels is a clean-shaven, bespectacled bachelor who wears neatly tailored clothes and precisely trimmed short hair. He smiles and laughs easily, but isn’t one to wisecrack or spout slogans that sound good but don’t do much for the children he’s supposed to look after. Child welfare folks use such words as deliberative, serious, bright, methodical and collaborative to describe him. “I think he’s very sincerely concerned about kids,” says Margaret Berglind, president of the Child Care Association of Illinois, an umbrella group of about 85 child-focused agencies.

Samuels brings a new set of eyes to the director’s job, which pays $127,600 a year. But though he says he has a soft heart for kids in tough spots —— especially the African-American children who make up about 67 percent of his agency’s wards — he adds that he also has a “hard head.” 

“Passion for the job may get you out of bed in the morning, but when you walk into the office, a good administrator sets that aside,” he says. “I try to keep the emotional part of me in check.”

Samuels says his administrative style is to trust people to make good decisions. While trying to empower his staff, though, Samuels made one early miscalculation. When he took the job, he says, he was hoping to keep a low profile and let other managers handle the inevitable media calls. But that only made him seem inaccessible. He quickly found himself under siege, from Murphy — who filed that lawsuit on behalf of wards who had been moved to multiple placements — and from others upset that McDonald was out.

Not particularly politically connected, Samuels says he’s still getting used to people recognizing him in public, whether it’s the homeless guy selling Streetwise in his Hyde Park neighborhood or a fellow patron at a lunch establishment. “I can be walking down the street, and people will come up and ask me questions,” he says, somewhat amused by this situation. “You can’t hide in this job.”

Roger Walker's appointment as director of the Illinois Department of Corrections means a significant shift in leadership style for an agency that may be in need of a mediator at the top.

The child welfare task force Samuels chaired last winter noted some key areas of concern, including the need for preventive services for the vast majority of at-risk families that are reported to the agency but in which no instances of abuse or neglect are substantiated. The task force also identified the need for ongoing monitoring of wards once they’ve been placed in the system.

Another big problem: wards who have been tossed from one placement to another because their situations weren’t fully assessed in the beginning or because providers were ill-prepared to care for them. 

And looking to the future, the task force recommended that Children and Family Services needs to better prepare and support its older wards as they reach young adulthood.

One of Samuel’s own priorities is getting a better handle on each child who comes into the system so that a proper placement can be made right away. The agency is working to train people throughout the state to make more comprehensive assessments of each child’s background, including his or her emotional and mental health needs. 

This is key, say child welfare advocates. These days, children “don’t come into foster care because they didn’t get cookies at the end of the day,” says Ronquillo, of the Children’s Home and Aid Society. “These are kids [who] by definition have some very specific needs.”

Samuels also wants to evaluate all of the state’s foster care providers, group homes and other residential facilities to see which ones do better with different kinds of kids. That’s in sharp contrast to the situation now, where a child comes into the system and pretty much goes to the next spot available. “It’s completely luck of the draw. That’s the way the system works today. That’s the way it’s been set up to work,” Samuels says. The agencies have been warned to expect that things will be different when their current Children and Family Services contracts come up for renewal.

The issue of missing wards first gained attention nationally in 2002 when it was learned that a 5-year-old Florida girl that state was supposed to keep track of had been missing for more than a year. 

Samuels set up a task force shortly after taking office, charging its members with finding as many of Illinois’ missing wards as possible. So far, they found about 60 percent of the 409 children who had been classified as missing. The department also began a toll-free hotline to report the whereabouts of missing children: 1-866-503-0184. “This population is going to run, and they’re going to run for a variety of reasons,” Samuels says. The challenge, he says, is to find these children more quickly. 

The department is pushing its caseworkers to file timely missing persons reports with the police in every case. “Simply by making this a priority and making it clear that execution does matter, you reduce the amount of time kids are missing,” Samuels says.

Of course, all of these plans and strategies require employees. This past summer, Gov. Blagojevich approved funding for about 270 positions at Children and Family Services, of which about 190 are considered “front-line” jobs. In the past, those positions had been mostly left vacant. But placing people has been painfully slow, in part because union rules require the positions to be posted internally first, and seniority is a factor. “The issue is not money. The issue is getting people through the process fast enough,” Samuels says. “It’s my number one priority. It’s also the one thing I go to bed worrying about the most.”

Wolf of the ACLU says it’s too early to have a firm opinion, but his first impressions of Samuels have been favorable. 

He hopes Samuels will attack the agency’s problems with vigor. “He strikes me as a very bright guy,” Wolf says. “The things that we’ve dealt with with him in detail, I’ve been very impressed.”

Gaylord Gieseke, vice president of Voices for Illinois Children, a not-for-profit advocacy group, says she’s encouraged by Samuels’ seeming understanding that society needs to look after all of the developmental needs of children — social, emotional, mental, physical. “The precious years of childhood go on wherever that child is placed,” Gieseke says. “We think of physical safety, but emotional safety is a critical, critical factor in human development.

“It is a huge challenge, no question about it,” Gieseke says. “But I think this current administration has put together a team that has some real capacity to think about this in some new and different ways. There’s no question in my mind that he’s very serious about making changes for children.” 

Stephanie Zimmermann is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Timesand an occasional contributor to this magazine. Her most recent piece for Illinois Issues, a profile of Eric Whitaker, the new director of the Department of Public Health, appeared in June. 

Illinois Issues, October 2003