Called on to Lead, Her Leap of Faith Brings Rewards and Challenges

Samantha Rukert, PsyD ’06, Director of Mental Health Services for Anne Arundel County’s (Maryland) Detention Facilities, always knew that she wanted to be a psychologist. “But a manager? I had no interest, none at all,” she said.

But life doesn’t always go according to plan. And when Detention Center administrators asked her to step into the director’s job two years ago, she took a leap of faith.

She didn’t jump alone. ­Samantha had a lot of support from her superintendent and guidance from the assistant warden.  And when she felt like she was floundering, she tried to channel her AUNE professors and mentors, like Lorraine Mangione.

That stood her in good stead in more ways than one, because she is also a psychology instructor at Loyola University Maryland -a position she got with the recommendation from Kathi Borden, chair of AUNE’s Department of Clinical Psychology.  Samantha, who is teaching an undergraduate course in systems and theories of psychology, said, “my AUNE training had a level of theoretical sophistication that has really helped me more than a less scholarly program would have.” AUNE also prepared her for more than one vocation. “The idea of multiple roles, which was very abstract, came to fruition. Antioch absolutely gave me the tools I needed.”

The Rewards and Challenges of the Job

For Anne Arundel County, Samantha manages the delivery of a mental health system that consists of nine mental health professionals who provide care to nine hundred inmates in two detention facilities.  The mission of the mental health team is for inmates to leave jail in better mental health than when they entered.  “We are successful in getting folks in jail stable and hopefully connected with ongoing care in the community after release,” said Samantha, who wrote her AUNE dissertation about mental health care for the underserved. “I’m confident we help our inmates, and I feel good about that.”

But the difficulties are legion. “The nation’s fifty-year experiment with moving the mentally ill out of institutions and into the community has not served those people well,” Samantha said. “They get picked up on a minor charge, like trespassing, and because they’re poor, they can’t make bail and they may be detained for as long as three months,” she said. “And once the inmates leave jail to return to the community, they may be once again cast adrift.”

There are personal challenges, too. As a manager, Samantha doesn’t work directly with inmates. “After years of working with clients, I have had to adjust to the idea of working for them instead. My primary role is to make sure that they get what they need. It is rewarding in a different way than direct clinical work.”

Another challenge is balancing the goal of providing individualized therapeutic services with the need to maintain institutional security.  “Being a leader with a background in mental health can be tricky because as clinicians, we are trained to be empathic and advocate for our clients,” she said. “But that doesn’t always go over well in a regimented correctional setting that is not devoted primarily to health care.”

An Early Vocation

Samantha always knew what she wanted to do with her life. “I felt like psychology chose me at an early age,” she said. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Smith College, she spent two years in Washington D.C., first as an AmeriCorps volunteer, then as a case manager for the homeless and mentally ill. Those two years prior to entering AUNE helped shape her future career, she said.

And she has a message for today’s AUNE students: be prepared for anything. “When you have a doctorate, you never know when you’ll be called on to lead,” she said, with the voice of experience. “It may be sooner than you expected.”

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