Q&A: Bryan Samuels, Chapin Hall executive director, discusses center's mission and research

Since joining Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, Bryan Samuels has worked to focus its mission, attract additional funding and expand the reach of the research and policy center.

Chapin Hall’s support from external sources has significantly increased over that time, and the center is leading the nation’s first count of homeless and runaway youth. Such leadership led Chapin Hall’s board to reappoint Samuels to a new five-year term this month.

For more than three decades Chapin Hall has been improving the well-being of children, families and their communities through rigorous academic research and innovative partnerships with state agencies and nonprofit organizations. On a recent afternoon, Samuels talked with UChicago News about his time at Chapin Hall and what excites him about the center’s current work.

From his office along the Midway, Samuels can almost see the apartment where his grandmother lived. Returning home in 2013 is part of what drew him to Chapin Hall from the nation’s capital, where he served as commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families—the highest-ranking child welfare policymaker in the federal government.

What jumps out from your work during your first three years leading Chapin Hall?

Part of the challenge at Chapin Hall is: How can we best make a unique contribution to the University’s larger commitment to rigorous research? A big part of the last three years has been trying to narrow our focus to a set of priorities that articulates our unique niche. By having a greater focus on policy—and being positioned to engage with policymakers around important questions they need answered—we have been able to grow the opportunities at Chapin significantly. What we have essentially done is refine our focus and then target our outreach to find the funding necessary to do the research we think is important.

What work excites you right now at Chapin Hall?

The country has given a lot of attention to adult homelessness. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much of a focus on homeless youth, in large part because there’s a very limited understanding of that population. So we started asking interested private foundations to raise the money to design and implement a methodology for estimating the number of runaway and homeless youth. We then will use what we find as a starting place to recommend federal policy changes. We have raised a total of $4.4 million and are engaged in a 24-month research initiative to not only provide an estimate, but also tell the more complex story of who the youth are, what they have experienced, and what the policy and practice implications are for prevention and intervention.

A lot of Chapin Hall’s work is across large populations and statewide systems. With such a macro focus, how do you keep the center connected to what’s happening on the ground level?

As Chapin engages systems and on-the-ground efforts, I have tried to stay connected at the leadership level. I spend a good deal of my time on the road and on the phone talking with child welfare directors and directors of health and human services agencies so that I can maintain a clear understanding of their questions and challenges. We’ve also put Chapin Hall staff in the position to engage these leaders. As we have grown, we have complemented our research staff with people who have come primarily from a policy background. Integration between in-house research staff and in-house policy staff allows Chapin Hall to provide a more laser-like approach to the issues. The result is the research findings and analytics that we’re delivering are contextualized to the circumstances in which policymakers find themselves.

How is the relationship evolving between Chapin Hall and government agencies?

As state governments have struggled to balance their budgets, they have had to downsize staff. It is often research and data analytics capacity that has been cut. If you just look in Illinois, eight years ago, the Department of Children & Family Services would have had about 13 people working in-house on data analytics; today capacity has been reduced to two people. At the same time, however, the need to analyze data and use it in an informed way hasn’t gone away. We step into that gap and provide expertise that can’t be found internally.

What did you take away from your experience in the federal government?

I came away from my time in D.C. really impressed with the quality of the federal civil service. The people who work as career staff at the federal level are incredibly talented and more specifically, rely on academic research in ways that I had never seen at the state and local levels. If there was a level of government that is trying to be evidence-driven from a policy perspective, it is the federal level. This reaffirmed for me the value of using academic research to inform policymaking and challenged me to hone my own skills.