Helping at-risk children and families build better lives and achieve their potential
Jeri Laureano, AM ’83, first discovered and developed her interest in social work at nine-years-old, accompanying her mother to her administrative assistant job for prominent child welfare social worker, Mary Lawrence Anoff, who was instrumental in connecting children throughout Illinois with foster and adoptive parents. Anoff also served as executive director of the Jewish Children’s Bureau and advised two U.S. presidents on foster child care.
“Anoff paid me $1 for every clinical note that I filed, and as I filed her notes, I began to read them. I was amazed to see how much her work positively impacted the lives of both the foster children and families in her care,” says Laureano, whose professional career has now come full circle as Chief Operating Officer at ChildServ, a nonprofit in Chicago which provides comprehensive, community-based programs – including foster care – to help at-risk children and families in Cook, DuPage, Kane and Lake counties build better lives and achieve their potential.
Laureano’s interest in foster care extended into her personal life as well. “As a former foster parent who adopted her now-13-year-old daughter, I know firsthand how wonderful the foster parent experience can be,” says Laureano, who is also the mother of two sons.
“I always wanted to have both biological children and foster/adoptive children,” she says. “The timing was right. My sons were teenagers, and I had the opportunity to attend a meeting to learn about fostering children with the intent to adopt.”
“We wanted a girl, and the agency asked me what we thought about international adoption; we filled out the paperwork, and eight months later, we received our daughter's picture. Four months after that, she was in my arms and quickly became part of our family,” Laureano remembers.
Inspired by her early experience reading reports on how children can be helped with the right amount of attention, Laureano pursued a social work career beginning in college. She received her bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and was prepared to continue her education at UIUC until she visited SSA. “I was going to complete my master’s degree at the University of Illinois, but after my friends and I visited SSA, I knew that it was the place that I should go,” she recalls.
During her visit, professors Paul Gitlin and Paula Meares challenged and impressed her. “I met them in my interview and was sold on SSA. Paul was extremely supportive and continued to be a mentor and role model after graduation,” says Laureano, who remembers visits to the Gitlin home as a student.
While at SSA, Laureano lived at International House and enjoyed meeting students from around the world: “I met people from Venezuela and Japan, who remain my friends to this day.”
She also remembers working with Lecturer Stanley McCracken, who helped prepare her for her SSA field work at La Rabida Children’s Hospital and the former Wyler’s Children’s Hospital at the University.
“I originally believed that psychoanalysis was the only way to treat people. At SSA, however, I was exposed to and learned about systems theory, behavioral modalities and the need to meet clients where they are when choosing the modality for treatment.”
After graduation, Laureano worked with older patients at a hospital in New Jersey. “I assisted with the early pilots of DRGs (diagnostic related groups), providing medical social work. I enjoyed learning from my elderly patients and helping their families provide resources and therapy during their final phase of life.”
She returned to Chicago in 1985, taking a position in the newborn intensive care unit for premature babies at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. After a few years, she transferred to a position in outpatient mental health, providing therapy for children and their families.
It was at Lutheran General Hospital that Laureano reconnected with her mentor, Paul Gitlin. “He asked me to work with SSA students, supervising them during their field placement,” she said. “I enjoyed that Gitlin continued to challenge me professionally.”
Laureano then opened a private practice in the northern suburbs to aid adolescents and their families, which she currently maintains. “I have always loved helping children and families – especially adolescents – working with those needing to find their own voice or in need of someone to speak on their behalf,” she says.
In 2005, she began working at the Lake County Health Departmental (Behavioral Health Services), spending nine years as its Quality Improvement Coordinator, and later, began teaching courses in social work at the College of Lake County in Grayslake.
Laureano joined ChildServ in January of 2014 as Director of Quality Improvement and Information Technology, ensuring the agency’s compliance with Council on Accreditation and funder standards; instituting best practices; and leading employee trainings. In May 2015, she was promoted to Chief Operating Officer.
“My role at ChildServ is to ensure that the staff have the necessary resources and skills to provide efficient and effective care for our clients,” she explains.
Laureano regularly visits ChildServ sites, such as the three group homes in DuPage County for young adults ages 12-19, to make sure that clients’ needs are met, and is inspired by ChildServ’s mission, which is to “help at-risk children and families build better lives and achieve their potential.”
“I love our mission and how the entire agency embraces and lives it each day,” says Laureano. “All of our clients have experienced some form of trauma, and we are constantly challenging ourselves to learn and improve in providing the best possible services for our clients.”
ChildServ’s wide array of programs provides an opportunity for frequent collaboration. “We are currently embarking on a new endeavor to implement a new model of trauma-informed treatment for our clients,” she says.
Laureano says the greatest satisfaction comes from seeing how the agency’s work directly impacts youth. “When I visit a group home, it is wonderful to see how excited the young people are and to hear how they are doing. When a youth tells me that they had the ‘time of their life’ at a Chicago sporting event, a live theater performance or a formal gala, I can’t help but smile. Or when they proudly tell me that they got a job or were accepted into college, you realize that your day at work has meaning.”
“We do our best every day to provide our clients with opportunities to build a better life. We have former clients who now work at ChildServ, making money so that they can support themselves and their family. I think that says a lot about who we are at ChildServ.”