skip to main content

Memorial Lecturer Advocates for Better Child Welfare Outcomes



Bryan Samuels has served as Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families under President Obama; Chief of Staff of Chicago Public Schools under Arne Duncan; and director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
Photo by Dana Maxson

When Bryan Samuels took over the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in 2003, the number of children in the system had dropped from a record-high of 51,000 in 1997 down to 23,400.

While those in the field took the numbers as a good sign, Samuels saw them as too good to be true, the child welfare expert said on Nov. 12 at Fordham.

Samuels, the executive director of Chapin Hall Center for Children in Chicago and a child welfare advocate, delivered the Graduate School of Social Service’s(GSS) James R. Dumpson Memorial Lecture. The talk honors GSS Dean Emeritus James Dumpson, Ph.D.,who died last year at the age of 103.

Fearing that an emphasis on shrinking the child welfare population took focus away from helping children fare better, Samuels launched a process of assessing every child who entered the welfare system. The assessments found that an overwhelming percentage of children displayed symptoms of trauma—concentration and sleeping problems, depression, anxiety, and angry outbursts.

Moreover, these symptoms did not improve once children were out of the system and back in permanent situations (which was how the welfare population was “successfully” reduced). Studies revealed there was no statistical difference between children placed in foster care and children left at home when it came to overall cognitive, emotional, behavioral, or substance use problems.

This means, Samuels said, it is insufficient to simply remove a child from an abusive or neglectful environment or leave him at home and connect him with social services. Healing trauma and improving outcomes for children requires evidence-based interventions and treatments—not a smaller system.

“With laser focus on reducing size, one of unintended consequences was not adequately meeting children’s needs,” Samuels said. “This data suggests that it doesn’t matter where you leave or place kids—abuse, neglect, and trauma leave a consistent fingerprint on their development.”

Samuels implemented more effective interventions, such as introducing evidence-based trauma treatment, structuring the placement system to keep foster children in their home schools, bolstering transitional living that prepares youth for adulthood, and evaluating welfare agencies according to wellbeing outcomes, rather than just a reduction in numbers.

“If you came into child welfare in 1997, you weren’t thinking about normal child development—you were thinking about making the system smaller. So introducing these ideas took some work,” he said. “We got folks to embrace the idea that we need to… find out whether kids are getting better in the key domains of their lives—in school, in the community, and in their families.”

Even with this shift in mindset, Samuels said that by the time he left his position as director, Illinois had still been able to decrease its child welfare population to 16,500.

“We have the obligation not to just make the system smaller, but to make it better for children and their families,” he said. “And we’re not left to choose between smaller or better—we can have both. You simply have to choose both, pursue both, measure both, and celebrate both.”

The memorial lecture was part of an ongoing series associated with the James R. Dumpson Chair in Child Welfare Research, a position created in 1980 to honor Dumpson and use Fordham’s education and research resources to improve the quality of life for vulnerable children.

To read more about Dumpson and see a timeline of his career highlights, click here.

Bryan Samuels was the speaker at the James R. Dumpson Memorial Lecture, honoring the late dean emeritus of the Graduate School of Social Service.
Photo by Dana Maxson

Comments are closed.