Bryan Samuels, national leader in child welfare, named executive director of Chapin Hall

Leading child welfare policymaker Bryan Samuels has been appointed executive director of Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, the Chapin Hall board of directors announced Aug. 5. His appointment will take effect Sept. 16.

Since its founding in 1985 by Harold Richman, a former dean of the School of Social Service Administration, Chapin Hall has focused on a mission of improving child well-being through policy research activities—developing and testing new ideas, generating and analyzing information, and examining policies, programs, and practices across a wide range of service systems and organizations. Chapin Hall takes a broad perspective, embracing an interest in policies that promote the well-being of all children and youth while devoting special attention to those facing significant problems.

As executive director, Samuels will advance Chapin Hall’s multidisciplinary, data-driven efforts to improve the well-being of children and youth, their families and their communities. Through its research and policy analysis, Chapin Hall enables people concerned about the welfare of children—policymakers, service providers, families and communities—to be better informed and supported, and to exercise their responsibilities to children more effectively.

Samuels, MPP’93, comes to Chapin Hall from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where he is the commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) and the highest-ranking federal child welfare policymaker. Samuels was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2010. He previously served as the chief of staff of the Chicago Public Schools under Arne Duncan and as director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

John Mark Hansen, who chairs the Chapin Hall board of directors and oversaw a national search for the new executive director, said Samuels would be a transformative leader for the research and policy center.

“Bryan Samuels has demonstrated a deep commitment to the welfare of children and youth, as well as the vision and leadership to put that commitment into action,” said Hansen, the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor in Political Science and the College. “He is exceptionally well-regarded in the child welfare community, from researchers to policymakers to policy practitioners. He will bring with him a national perspective, profound insights into the policy impact of Chapin Hall’s research, and deep familiarity with Chapin Hall and the University of Chicago.”

Samuels was drawn to Chapin Hall because of its emphasis on uniting rigorous scholarship with the practical realities of policymaking—a major focus of his work at ACYF, he said. 

“Everything I’ve done in D.C. has been about moving child welfare from a philosophical platform to an evidence-based platform. We want to build a child welfare system that children benefit from having been involved in, and we can’t do that without science,” Samuels said.

“Chapin Hall, with its tradition of first-rate research and access to the scholarly resources of the University of Chicago, is uniquely suited to produce scholarship that can make a real difference in the lives of children. I am delighted to have this opportunity to return to my hometown and begin a new chapter at Chapin Hall.”

Building on the talents of Chapin Hall’s researchers and its national reputation for applied research, Samuels will focus on strengthening methods for synthesizing and translating qualitative and quantitative research and developing an interdisciplinary approach to policy analysis and formulation.

In addition, Samuels hopes to shorten the sometimes lengthy process of incorporating new research into policy. By putting Chapin Hall’s work into a real-world context and enhancing its dissemination, he will strengthen the relationship between researchers and policymakers and support the faster translation of research into practice.

As ACYF commissioner, Samuels emphasized data-driven approaches to improving the social and emotional well-being of vulnerable children and youth. He oversaw federal programs addressing child abuse and neglect, runaway and homeless youth, domestic and intimate partner violence, and teen pregnancy. He played a key role in the establishment of a federal law requiring state child welfare agencies to screen for and treat the trauma of the children they serve.

While in Washington, Samuels worked to focus child welfare policymaking on tangible outcomes affecting the day-to-day experience of children receiving services. His work placed such child-specific outcomes above system and process outcomes, such as the number of children in foster care on a given day. Samuels relied on data and research to shape initiatives that were no longer “one-size-fits-all,” but tailored to meet the developmental needs of the range of children who are served by the child welfare system.

At the same time, Samuels led the development of common strategies for intervening and achieving better outcomes across ACYF program areas, informed by research describing the overlapping risks faced by young people in child welfare systems, runaway and homeless youth shelters, and domestic violence programs.

Under his leadership, the ACYF integrated research showing that the children and youth served in ACYF programs have similar histories of trauma and maltreatment, as well as similar social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.

“Bryan did an extraordinary job in his time at HHS and exerted great child welfare policy leadership at the federal level. He is extremely skilled at identifying the best research, and translating it into effective policy and programs,” said David Hansell, who worked closely with Samuels at the Department of Health and Human Services as acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families. “He is an ideal choice for Chapin Hall because he understands the critical intersection of research, policy and practice. Bryan is perfectly positioned to help move Chapin Hall forward.”

Susan Dreyfus, president and CEO of the Alliance for Children and Families and a former member of the Chapin Hall board, said Samuels has “a head and heart connection to the work that we’re doing on the front lines. He is driven by data, but also by his values and a deep desire to see better outcomes for children and families. It’s that same head and heart connection that makes Chapin Hall unique, and gives it such credibility. Bryan’s appointment is wonderful news for him and for Chapin Hall, but even better news for the field of child welfare.”

Child welfare researcher John Landsverk, who collaborated closely with Samuels at the ACYF, said Samuels showed an unusual interest in scientific research into child welfare, and made strong connections across the scholarly community.

“I have an enormous respect for Bryan Samuels,” Landsverk said. “At the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, he has connected across agencies to take in the richness of NIH-funded research on child welfare—something that has never before been done. He has made an enormous impact as a policymaker and brought the dialogue between researchers and policymakers to a new level. Bryan is a charismatic leader who will make Chapin Hall the most important platform for developing the relationship between practice, policy and science. I could not be more pleased or enthusiastic about his appointment.” 

Samuels succeeds Cheryl Smithgall, who has served as acting executive director of Chapin Hall since April 2013.  

“Cheryl has acted with integrity, patience and good sense in her months of leadership at Chapin Hall. She has done a splendid job in a difficult role, and the staff of Chapin Hall, as well as the entire board, is enormously grateful for her service,” Hansen said.

Samuels, a native of the South Side of Chicago, holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. He was a lecturer at the School of Social Service Administration from 1997 to 2003. His wife, Gina Samuels, is an associate professor at SSA.

The University of Chicago is home to a diverse array of programs and research initiatives aimed at ensuring that children have an opportunity to thrive. These include the Urban Education Institute and programs such as the UChicago Charter School, the Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Urban Teacher Education Program, which aim to create knowledge to produce reliably excellent urban schooling. The School of Social Service Administration has helped define the fields of social work and social welfare for more than 100 years. Crime Lab, a cross-disciplinary program directed by SSA Professors Jens Ludwig and Harold Pollack, studies ways of preventing children from becoming involved in crime. UChicago Promise helps increase college access and readiness among Chicago high school students, offering additional resources and support for those interested in attending the University of Chicago or other selective liberal arts colleges.