Rolling up his sleeves in new job

Overhaul: Applying what he learned in Detroit, Baltimore's new social services chief tries to heal a bruised state-run agency.

April 17, 2005|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Years after he implemented welfare reform in some of Detroit's poorest neighborhoods, then was tapped to manage the nation's food stamp and school lunch programs, Samuel Chambers Jr. admits that his toughest challenge might still lie ahead.

As the new head of Baltimore's Department of Social Services, which cares for the state's largest number of foster children and fragile adults, Chambers has taken on an enormous responsibility. In the past, federal officials, state legislators, courts and local advocates have attacked the department for a multitude of failings, including recent child deaths.

One of the most horrific cases was the starvation death of 15-year-old Ciara Jobes in December 2002. There have been more deaths recently, including the fatal beating of month-old twins in May 2004 and smothering of a 2-month-old girl in December 2003. Critics have blamed DSS for failing to keep track of children or ensure the stability of the adults who care for them.

"Is there room for improvement? Absolutely," Chambers said recently. "There has been a lack of trust between this agency and the community for years. It's kind of easy to see why some might want a divorce."

Chambers, however, is not about to walk away. After six months on the job -- he started Nov. 10 after a nasty battle between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mayor Martin O'Malley over who should run the beleaguered department -- Chambers said he has bonded with a dedicated staff of social workers who he believes will help him overhaul the agency.

The department's food stamp program has been reworked to ensure that recipients are getting the right amount of aid, and a project that would give case workers immediate access to state criminal records has been launched. Chambers, who has been talking up his goals with groups of employees, is expected to unveil a strategic plan this month.

"This is a resilient staff," Chambers said of the 2,400 people he oversees. "They have lived through a lot of unrest and change. They are committed to improvement."

Similar cities

Chambers, 58, has spent the past few months getting to know Baltimore, a city he says is similar to Detroit, where he has spent most of his professional career. A Louisiana native, Chambers moved to Michigan in 1968. Armed with a bachelor's degree from Southern University in psychology and later, a master's degree in public administration from Wayne State University, Chambers worked his way up through the Michigan Family Independence Agency, serving in leadership positions in several counties, including Wayne County, which includes Detroit.

He said that Detroit, like Baltimore, has struggled with sharp demographic and economic shifts. Both have large African-American populations, members of which have felt disenfranchised, and in some sense neglected for years.

But unlike Detroit, Chambers said, Maryland's political leaders have not treated Baltimore like "an alien fifth cousin." There is much more effort at the state level to help the city revitalize its neighborhoods and its residents, he said, adding that collaborative efforts between the two entities as well as nonprofit and religious groups is especially encouraging.

Chambers said he is confident the programs he developed in Detroit will work in Baltimore.

"Detroit is where I pretty much learned my craft," he said. "And the dynamics there are pretty much the same here."

`Very impressed'

During the past few months, Chambers has met often with city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, who is chairman of the local Child Fatality Review Committee and a frequent critic of the state-run social services department. Last year, Beilenson headed up a panel that made a slew of recommendations for improvements at the agency, some of which have been implemented.

"I have been very impressed with him," said Beilenson. "I am very optimistic. He is willing to make the changes necessary and he is bringing along the staff. He has really been a change agent."

During monthly dinner meetings, the men have sketched out a plan to place city social workers at some DSS offices so that when women come to the offices to pick up their federal food and medical benefits, they also can learn about birth control options. Beilenson said he was excited about the joint effort.

"This is the first time we've done something like this," Beilenson said. "But why make women with children go to two offices? It is not only good for the families, but it is good for taxpayers. If they get the services they need, they are more likely to get off welfare and not abuse their kids."

Those who have worked with Chambers in the past said they aren't surprised to learn that he is moving swiftly to reform social services in Baltimore. Michigan was a leader in the push to end welfare in the 1990s, and as head of the Wayne County Department of Human Services, Chambers set up programs to get women with children back to work quickly.

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