The Biden administration’s top child welfare official made her first public appearance Thursday, saying the federal government needs to revisit “certain laws on the books” to address racism, and imploring states to immediately distribute relief funds as cash grants to foster youth struggling with economic devastation during the pandemic.
“It’s not controversial,” said Aysha Schomburg, who was appointed last month as associate commissioner of the federal Children’s Bureau. “Give young people the cash and trust them to make the decisions they need to make for their lives and their priorities. That’s my message.”
At the town hall event hosted by the national nonprofit Think of Us, which focuses on systems change projects in child welfare, Schomburg fielded crowd-sourced questions from young people across the country. Moderator Sixto Cancel, the founder of Think of Us, who also grew up in foster care, pressed her to address what he described as states’ slow-moving efforts to deliver $400 million in federal funds to foster youth.
Echoing results of other surveys by youth-serving organizations, thousands of young people have reported to Think of Us their challenges with housing, transportation, food and access to education. A third said they were attending college before COVID-19 erupted, but had left school by November, according to Cancel.
Schomburg said dispersing federal relief funds as cash grants to current and former foster youth could require executive action by governors. She announced that her administration is finalizing a guidance letter to states this week that will urge them to act quickly.
“I’m hoping they go whichever way is the fastest way,” she said. “It’ll be pretty clear there’s urgency here and we need to act.”
Cries for racial justice were prominent at the Thursday town hall, which featured recordings of Black Lives Matter chants and a chorus of youth from around the country singing the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Viewers saw the names of Black youth killed by police, including Daunte Wright, the Minnesota 20-year-old shot to death during a traffic stop last week.
In March, Schomburg told The Imprint in her first public statement as Children’s Bureau leader that advancing racial equity would be a key goal of her tenure, and she reiterated that Thursday.
“My No. 1 priority is going to be advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities,” she said. “We keep doing the work and acknowledging it’s Black, brown and Native children who are disproportionately impacted, and so it’s time we address that.”
She added that she aims to “erase the disparity and disproportionality” in the child welfare system.
“You have to be unafraid to say there’s racism here, and there’s bias here, and we have to call it what it is,” said Schomburg, who is Black. “We can compare and contrast where my family – if I need services – might end up versus where a white family might end up. That’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, but we need to start having it.”
She also pointed to the need for fundamental systemic changes, without being too specific, noting that there are “laws that are on the books that need to be addressed in terms of perpetuating inequity in child welfare and beyond.”
Two federal policies passed in the 1990s have come under renewed scrutiny recently as contributing to racial inequities: the Adoption and Safe Families Act and the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act, both of which aimed to reduce the length of time children spend in foster care. The former set federal deadlines for family reunification, and the latter limited the role race could play in states’ decisions about adoptive placements.
Since the children in foster care are disproportionately Black and Native American, some advocates argue these laws hinder efforts to reunite children of color in foster care with their biological families, and favor adoption, often by white families.
After years of planning, advocacy groups recently launched a campaign to repeal the Adoption and Safe Families Act. One of the nation’s largest foster care agencies, Bethany Christian Services, has also called for re-evaluation of the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act.
Schomburg previously served as a senior adviser to New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and came to the Biden administration as a relative unknown in the national child welfare field. She has never served in federal office and spent a portion of her career outside New York City’s child welfare agency, working on a wider range of youth issues as an attorney for the City Council.
“The first thing people were buzzing about when you were named associate commissioner was, ‘Who are you?’ ” Cancel said in an opening question.
Schomburg described herself as a “Brooklyn girl, through and through,” who grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s with strong support from her parents and four siblings.
“Everyone has responsibility for supporting youth and families – it’s not just child welfare,” she said, noting the key roles played by schools and public housing agencies, and other government systems.
“The point was, let’s make sure we are coordinated and helping families,” she said, “and ideally helping families before they even come to the attention of ACS.”