With American families entering a second year devastated by a pandemic, a New York City attorney and public official is now taking over the Biden administration’s top child welfare post.
In her new role, Aysha Schomburg of New York will oversee the roughly $10 billion U.S. Children’s Bureau, which regulates federal funding for the nation’s vast network of state- and county-run agencies responsible for foster care, child maltreatment investigations, and prevention services.
New York City officials and lawmakers who have worked with Schomburg say she’s a savvy pick to serve as associate commissioner of the bureau. Although she has not worked for a federal agency before, they credit the 48-year-old Schomburg with quietly mastering hard-edged local government as a lawyer for City Council mediating issues across agencies.
In her most recent senior adviser role at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) — one of the largest local foster care and prevention agencies in the country — she helped expand protections for parents at risk of child abuse and neglect investigations. She’s also worked on legislation expanding support in schools for LGBTQ students, among other local laws focused on children. During an earlier stint at ACS, she helped establish savings accounts for foster youth and a hotline for recruiting foster parents.
A spokesperson for the federal Administration for Children and Families, which houses the Children’s Bureau, declined several requests to interview Schomburg, stating that she was just beginning a “strategic planning process” and will speak publicly next month. Instead, the spokesperson, Debra Johnson, forwarded a statement on her behalf.
“The Biden-Harris Administration will focus on building back American families that support children in their homes and communities,” Schomburg stated. “I dedicated my career to improving children’s lives and strengthening families and plan to bring that same enthusiasm to this role.”
Schomburg is joining the Children’s Bureau at a crucial moment in the history of American foster care and child well-being, with families facing a once-in-a-lifetime triple strain from poverty, social isolation and risk of severe illness and death due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The child welfare system has also come under renewed scrutiny after a year of protests over racial injustice, with growing attention to the disproportionate number of Black and Native American families separated by foster care.
Youth advocates and attorneys representing parents’ rights had tried to push the Biden administration to keep Jerry Milner in the post — Schomburg’s predecessor and a rare Trump-era official with broad progressive support. In contrast with the previous administration’s harsh family separation policies at the U.S. border, Milner was widely praised for his vigorous messaging to child welfare officials across the country, encouraging states to keep families intact whenever possible and to be generous with enhanced benefits and services during the pandemic.
In addition to filling Milner’s former role, the Biden administration has named JooYeun Chang as acting leader of the Children’s Bureau’s parent agency, the Administration for Children and Families.
Prior to joining the bureau, since 2017, Schomburg has served as senior administrator for program oversight, working under the second-in-command at New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services. She previously worked for the City Council for nine years, primarily as a lawyer for the education committee, with a stint overseeing legislative efforts for 13 committees related to human services, and providing legal counsel to the council speaker. In each job, she’s negotiated sensitive issues between the city’s child welfare system and its hospitals, schools, public housing and child support and public assistance agencies.
While relatively unknown among families, advocates and professionals involved in child welfare both in New York and nationally, conversations with Schomburg’s former colleagues say she has worked on overlooked but crucial challenges faced by foster youth and their families, and other families at risk of system involvement.
In an email, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Social Services confirmed that, as a liaison for Children’s Services, Schomburg “helped to actively connect families” to child support programs and other income supports, helping “reform the more punitive approaches to child support policy and cases taken by prior administrations.”
Schomburg also researched and advised New York City on one of the most controversial policy issues in child welfare: the drug testing of new mothers by the city’s hospitals. A positive test even for marijuana can prompt nurses to call the child maltreatment hotline and result in an investigation.
Last year — prompted by the City Council and advocates for women of color — the city’s public hospitals changed their policies to require written consent for such action.
A spokesperson for Schomburg’s new federal employer said the policy change addressed “racial disparities affecting Black and Latina mothers who were being inappropriately drug-tested and reported to ACS.”
In an email to The Imprint, NYC Health + Hospitals Chief Medical Officer Machelle Allen said the policy change Schomburg helped usher in ensured “the protection of families and children in New York City.”
Schomburg’s former supervisor Eric Brettschneider, an influential 54-year veteran of child welfare and the city agency’s current first deputy commissioner, praised her many similar efforts.
“She never worked alone, she was always facilitating a team approach, building consensus and getting sign-off,” Brettschneider said. “If you’ve ever been in a room where two different city agencies are trying to reach agreement about these kinds of things — it takes a master. And she was a master at it.”
Still, some leading local advocates for investigated families are wary of a New York official many had never heard of taking over a federal agency with sweeping influence.
Sandra Killett, a social justice organizer and consultant, expressed concern that providing much earlier support to struggling households to prevent foster care placements didn’t seem to be a focus for Schomburg in her career to date, which Killett contrasted with Milner’s nationwide campaigning for foster care prevention.
“We shall see,” Killett said. “I am prayerful there will be some major movement and continuation of the work activists, systems and the Children’s Bureau had been doing.”
In her new position, Schomburg will oversee systems meant to help families in crisis at a frightful time for America’s most vulnerable. The Federal Reserve estimated last month that 10 million Americans have not returned to their jobs since the pandemic began a year ago. According to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, the child poverty rate remained a stubborn 14% in January, albeit down from a high of 21% last summer.
The current conditions could change rapidly this year. Millions of children could be at heightened risk of having their families reported to state child maltreatment hotlines, where allegations of neglect closely linked to poverty are common. But, the latest federal relief package — approved by both the U.S. Senate and House this week and now awaiting President Biden’s signature — is also expected to dramatically reduce child poverty in the next year, at least temporarily.
“It is an honor to serve in the Biden-Harris Administration and advance policy in racial equity, COVID-19 response and recovery, economic growth and development, health care, and climate change that all significantly impact families that touch the child welfare system,” Schromburg added in her statement to The Imprint.
She will also inherit one of the largest reforms of the federal role in child welfare in history. The Family First Prevention Services Act, which takes effect for most states in October, opens up potentially billions of dollars to spend on services meant to keep families in crisis together, avoiding the use of foster care. It also cracks down on the use of group homes and institutions, limiting federal dollars to support such placements. But state officials nationwide have faced a difficult rollout, especially in developing prevention programs that can show they work through rigorous evaluations.
Meanwhile, the systems to investigate and vet any allegations of child abuse and neglect remain hobbled by the coronavirus. Due to the pandemic’s restrictions, in-person social worker and family visits have been scaled back, and the courts deciding on child welfare cases have gone virtual, with hearings delayed for months.
City Council member Robert Cornegy, Jr., who represents central Brooklyn and spent time in foster care before being adopted, describes Schomburg as uniquely positioned to confront those challenges at the Children’s Bureau at this historic time. He credits her with helping him prepare for a political career.
“She and I would talk about it from my perspective as a foster child who did OK, and her wanting to see more outcomes like mine,” he said. He added that, when it came to helping youth who are aging out of care, in particular, “she always had a penchant and passion for it.”
Cornegy and others also spoke of Schomburg’s extraordinary family legacy.
Her great grandfather, an Afro-Puerto Rican man named Arturo Schomburg, was an intellectual force during the Harlem Renaissance, traveling the world to accumulate thousands of historical artifacts from and about the African diaspora and the transatlantic slave trade. Those documents — including manuscripts, photographs, paintings and other objects — stuffed the shelves of Schomburg’s Brooklyn home in the early 20th century. They eventually became seed material for the now-renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is part of the New York Public Library system.
The center is one of the world’s most significant repositories of Black cultural life. From its spot near a busy Harlem intersection, the institution has hosted political and artistic luminaries including Zora Neale Hurston, Sonia Sanchez, Sonny Rollins, James Baldwin, Ella Baker, and at least one former foster youth, the celebrated modernist painter Jacob Lawrence.
Schomburg has served as a steward to that institution, formerly chairing a nonprofit organization that supports the center.
Dodd Terry, a senior manager at the Legal Aid Society, which represents most of the city’s foster youth in court, worked closely with Schomburg at the Administration for Children’s Services in the early 2000s.
Asked how she might use the platform of the Children’s Bureau to respond to recent broad-based activism for racial justice, he described her as especially frank.
“I’m assuming when the moment calls for a voice,” he said, “she would be a very strong voice.”