Policy Resource

Bryan Samuels Gives a Call to Action at the Policy Plenary

Dec 24, 2011

At 8 o'clock this morning the Maryland Ballroom filled with 1,600 people to hear Bryan Samuels, Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services speak about young children involved in America’s child welfare system.

Mr. Samuels discussed his own experience leading the child welfare system in Illinois as well as current efforts at the federal level to appropriately serve the youngest children in care by incorporating a developmental approach.

Mr. Samuels pointed out that, although the number of children in the child welfare system has dramatically decreased over the past several years, we need to be cautious in our assessments of this change. While we would hope to count the shrink in population as a success, infants and toddlers are still abused and neglected at unacceptable rates. (Every 7 minutes in the United States, an infant or toddler is removed from her parents and sent to live with someone else, often a stranger.) If fewer children are entering the system, we must at least consider the question: are we reaching the children who need protection? Are we sufficiently addressing the needs of at-risk families? A system whose primary goal is to downsize risks losing focus on other issues.

Instead, Samuels encouraged us to advocate for a system whose primary goal is enhancing the well-being of infants and toddlers. This would be accomplished by tailoring children’s treatment to their developmental stage and individual needs. Here, Samuels invoked ZERO TO THREE’s Call to Action on Behalf of Maltreated Infants and Toddlers and the five elements of a developmental approach that it lays out. Audience members were encouraged to take the Call to Action home with them and use it as a tool to educate and improve their own child welfare systems.

Critical to the establishment of a developmentally-informed system, Samuels pointed out, is a well-trained workforce. He pointed to partnerships with universities and the Erikson Institute in his own state as one strategy for recruiting talented, invested, and well-educated professionals to work with children and families involved in the child welfare system. He also suggested reshaping social work curricula – and social workers’ ultimate job descriptions – in order to draw young people into the field and support them in their work with vulnerable children and families.

Ultimately, Samuels encouraged us to envision a system that, for every decision made about each individual child, asks one simple question: Is this child better off? Guided by the daily – even hourly – evocation of this question, he argued, we will build a child welfare system that protects not only the physical safety but the social and emotional well-being of our most vulnerable babies and toddlers.

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