Thousands are being deported without a chance to appear before an immigration judge.
The Ultimate Parent
Samuels, the new director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, is a small-built man with tightly cropped hair and thick glasses over charcoal-colored eyes. That afternoon, he proceeded with his speech as if he had a rapt audience--even though the teenagers were passing around plates of food, and Samuels wound up competing with the din of clacking silverware.
And those young people trying to listen seemed uninterested in the story Samuels chose to tell about his aunt learning to drive at the age of 65, an example, he said, of how they should all follow their own paths, different from those taken by friends and family.
For Samuels, it was a moment that reflects the daily challenges he faces in his new role. Samuels is confronting many skeptics. The 37-year-old, who is unmarried and has no children, is an outsider to the state's child welfare system and a surprise choice for the job.
In May, he took over one of the stormiest positions in state government. Mistakes at DCFS--among the largest child welfare agencies in the country--can result in front-page articles, angst within the governor's office, intense pressure on the director and even children's deaths.
The department is particularly controversial in the African American community, where DCFS is most involved. Many have charged that the department targets their families and tears them apart.
For years, a number of political leaders called for a black DCFS director, and the calls intensified after Gov. Rod Blagojevich was elected with significant black support.
Samuels, an African American, said it is important for the reputation of DCFS to improve in his community. "There is a strongly held belief that the agency didn't serve its kids, and I don't have any proof to the contrary," he said.
One way Samuels will try to change people's minds is by taking a "hard look" at why Illinois has one of the most pronounced racial disparities in the country. Right now, black children make up two-thirds of those in foster care but only a fifth of the state's total population under 18.
He's also moving ahead with plans he thinks will make the department a more nurturing place for children, and more responsive to their communities.
In addition to putting money and energy toward the emotional and educational needs of foster children, like the ones he spoke to at the luncheon, Samuels wants to increase the possibility that they will be reunited with their parents. In 2002, one of every 10 foster children who left the child welfare system went back to their homes. The others were adopted or placed in permanent guardianship, or grew old enough to move out on their own.
While Samuels' plans may not appear groundbreaking, they are potentially controversial because they represent a significant shift in emphasis and resources from the previous administration.
And Samuels will have to navigate such change carefully. His predecessor, Jess McDonald, was widely praised for cutting the state's foster care caseload by 59 percent.
"Before, the system was in chaos," said Benjamin S. Wolf, the associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, who has monitored the system for more than 15 years.
McDonald was so admired that a cadre of newspaper editorialists, experts and advocates came out in support of him as Blagojevich began naming a cabinet. Soon afterward, McDonald resigned and Samuels was tapped. Some in the tightly-knit circle of child welfare experts and advocates expressed concern that new priorities could undermine the advances of the past decade.
"Samuels seems like a smart man, but he is new to the department, and he will have a steep learning curve," Wolf said.
Yet others quietly applauded.
To a number of advocates working in Chicago's poor, black neighborhoods, the department's success under McDonald, who is white, seemed hollow. They contend that the department reduced the caseload by pressuring people to adopt, even when it was not good for the child or the family. "I think that Jess McDonald had a great mind, but he lacked sensitivity," said Bamani Obadele, a long-time community activist who became the department's deputy director of external affairs in July.
In a pair of wide-ranging interviews, Samuels shied away from criticizing McDonald. He stressed that "adoption is still on the table" and bristled at the suggestion that his changes could reverse the system's apparent progress.
Samuels and those who work with him also pointed out how different he is from McDonald. Regardless of people's opinions on his policies, McDonald, whom everyone called by his first name, was gregarious, fiery and politically savvy. Samuels is described as thoughtful and skilled at management, but many note that he doesn't come off as particularly animated.
Samuels would like his staff to call him "Bryan," but he realizes his serious personality doesn't lend itself to that. He said he is getting used to people calling him "director."
He often says that he and his staff have to be like weather forecasters. "We have to predict what the likelihood of rain is," he said. "All of it is a gamble. We try to make the right decisions, but sometimes we are wrong."
Taking the job as DCFS director was, in many ways, a risk. As Obadele put it: "DCFS is not one of those jobs that, if you had a choice, you would take, given the amount of public attention and the fact that any given day a child could die and you would have to explain it."
Samuels said he took the job because he thought it would be a challenge, but, as he grudgingly answered questions about his family life, it seemed apparent that his decision was rooted in more than that. His father died when he was a baby, and, in second grade, his mother became mentally ill. Realizing that she couldn't care for her children, she sent Samuels and his two brothers away to the Glenwood School, a private boarding school in the south suburbs, where he would spend the next eleven years.
While he was never a ward of the state, Samuels noted that his own journey gives him empathy for children who can't live with their parents.
"You know the challenges of trying to accept the reality of being separated from your mother, and trying to figure out how you go forward and how you build a life," Samuels said. "[As] you overcome and deal with it and progress on, it drags you further and further away from the person who brought you into this world. And so all of those challenges are very real for me."
For many years, as he made his way through a bachelor's degree at the University of Notre Dame and a master's in public policy at the University of Chicago, his dream was to run the Glenwood School. Samuels said that, as an institution, the school tried to treat everyone fairly, which made it hard to cater to the needs of each individual child or try to gauge how they were doing. So his aspiration was to make the school "a really cool place for kids."
After finishing school in 1990, Samuels spent the next decade working as an administrator for the human services departments in Illinois and Nebraska, and as a consultant to other state governments, evaluating programs for families at risk of having their children removed.
Just before being named director, he worked on juvenile justice issues at Chicago Metropolis 2020, a civic organization. He earned a reputation there for being "very serious about public service and thoughtful," said Paula Wolff, a senior executive at the organization.
This winter, Blagojevich named Samuels to lead a taskforce on DCFS.
Samuels emphasizes that he wants DCFS to improve the quality of life for children in foster care. "I want to make sure that they have the same opportunity as middle-class kids to go to the circus and the museum and the zoo," he said. The department, he added, should be "the ultimate parent."
Samuels has a particular interest in helping foster children do well in school because excelling in class was one of the things that steadied him as he grew up. In a November 2002 article, The Chicago Reporter found that DCFS does not keep statistics on the educational outcomes of the children it is responsible for, but a 2000 study, commissioned by the department, found that wards in Chicago Public Schools performed worse than their classmates. In the area of education, Samuels said, DCFS currently does "a horrible job."
Carol Winn, the director of the foster care and adoption division at Ada S. McKinley Community Services, a South Side agency, said she is excited about some of the language used by Samuels. "I hear the new director say that, no matter where kids are, they have got to be happy and thriving," she said.
Samuels, however, is more uncertain about whether he needs to improve the quality of the foster parents themselves--a much more controversial endeavor.
The department has just recently discovered problems with some foster parents. In January, a 3-year-old foster child was found chained to a bed while police were conducting a drug bust at the home of his grandmother, who was caring for him. A week later, six cold and hungry children were found locked in the basement of their foster home.
Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy has said these are a few examples that show the quality of foster parents has declined.
In the past, McDonald blasted such criticism as discriminatory, saying that, between the lines, Murphy was criticizing black foster parents. And advocates such as Winn generally support placing these children with relatives to carry on the strong African American tradition of kinfolk stepping in to raise the children of troubled parents.
Still, Murphy strongly backed a ban that McDonald put on foster parents over the age of 65, and he was livid this summer when Samuels lifted it.
Samuels said he rescinded the policy because he believes agencies have the capacity to decide on an individual basis who is capable of caring for a child. But Samuels does not discount Murphy's overall assessment. "I agree with Patrick that we should be looking at the best interest of the child, whether it is in a relative's home or a foster home," he said.
Samuels added that he has not had enough time to get a good grasp of the process of placing children with foster parents, and has asked his staff to examine it.
Shaquita Ramey, 22, said she doesn't feel she was served well by the system when she was a child in foster care. After being removed from her mother's house at age 10, she spent five years being passed back and forth between relatives, foster homes and shelters. Then, when she was 15, she dropped out of Austin High School, fled from the house of her grandfather, who had developed a drug addiction, and went to live with a boyfriend.
Eventually, Ramey realized she wanted better for herself. She was placed in a group home and enrolled in an alternative high school.
Now she works as a mentor for other foster children and alternative high school students. Ramey said she has come to believe that her experience was typical for wards of the state. She would like to send a message to
the new director: "Listen to the foster children, and don't just place children with the first person who is willing to accept them. Try to find a place for them where they can be loved and wanted."
Another tricky proposition is investing more money in helping biological parents regain custody of their children. In the past four years, the budget for foster care and reunifying children with their families has dropped 23 percent. But money spent on adoption and guardianship has gone up 140 percent.
Caseworkers became afraid to push reunification a decade ago, when 3-year-old Joseph Wallace was hanged by his mentally ill mother, Amanda, in their West Side apartment two months after he was returned from foster care. In addition, a 1997 federal law instructed states to give biological parents about a year to get their acts together before permanently losing custody.
Since then, more children in Illinois have been adopted out of the child welfare system or placed with permanent guardians than in any other state.
But some advocates and experts have long felt the state was giving up on families too fast. "Valuing African American families and their children has not been part of this system," said Terry Solomon, executive director of the African American Family Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor. "The same thing continues today. It is reflected in how they look at African American families and if they are worth investing in."
Samuels, though, can't shrug off the federal law. Instead, he will "test the premise" that some mental health and substance abuse programs can work to help troubled families in a timely fashion, he said. "The real challenge, as I see it, is finding those programs that are effective within the small window that we have to get families healthy."
The ACLU's Wolf points out that, in addition to having to work within the federal law, Samuels will have to deal with the juvenile courts, where judges ultimately decide whether a child should go home. He also repeats a theme common in McDonald's administration: that children are only young for a short period of time, and it is essential that they be moved to permanent homes as quickly as possible.
Donaco Collins, whose 8-year-old son has been in foster care for nearly three years, believes the problem stems from the mindset judges and caseworkers have toward biological parents. "We don't feel like we have a chance," Collins said this August in the West Side office of Sankofa: The Safe Family Initiative, a program that tries to help parents keep their children. Collins has been talking with Sankofa about starting a support group for parents.
Out of a black briefcase full of documents, Collins, who is legally blind, pulled out official paperwork that shows he has completed two parenting programs, attended individual therapy and passed so many drug tests that the court stopped requiring them. He also proudly showed a psychiatric report that concludes his son has an attachment to him.
Yet, at his last court date, the judge brought up the possibility of not reuniting Collins with his child.
"DCFS fights more for the foster parent than for the natural parent," Collins said. He thinks this is especially true when it comes to people like him--a black man who lives on Chicago's West Side and subsists on a monthly disability check.
To some degree, his contention is backed by DCFS data. In fiscal year 2002, victims of abuse and neglect in Cook County were almost 90 percent more likely to be taken into protective custody than children in other parts of the state. And, once in foster care, these children were much less likely to go home: About 6 percent of Cook's foster children were reunited in fiscal year 2002, compared with about 25 percent in other parts of the state.
And the struggle to reunify children with their families is intertwined with the fact that black children make up a disproportionate share of the state's wards.
Samuels doesn't think the disparity should be blamed on the usual suspects: poverty and drug abuse. Noting there are complicated reasons behind it, Samuels said he is in the process of examining each step in the system, from the time abuse and neglect are reported to the time the case is closed.
"We have to figure out where kids get stuck," Samuels said. "We have to look at the cultural differences in the programs where we are purchasing services. Right now, we have a one-size-fits-all system. But we need to be culturally responsible to move toward healthiness faster."
Kathryn Monroe and Desiree Evans helped research this article.