Former Obama official leaves post as head of Michigan Children’s Services Agency
Former Michigan child welfare director JooYeun Chang has joined the Biden administration as the principal deputy assistant secretary at the Administration for Children and Families (ACF).
Chang, who led Michigan’s Children’s Services Agency for the past two years, will also be the interim head of ACF until the Senate confirms a nominee. Biden has yet to announce who he will nominate for that top job.
“I am honored to serve in the Biden-Harris administration,” Chang said, in an email to Youth Services Insider. “I look forward to working with my ACF colleagues across the country to keep children safe within families and as part of their communities.”
Chang’s Michigan colleagues acknowledged her departure last week.
“President Biden is wise to ask Joo Chang to join his child welfare team,” said a statement from Michigan Supreme Court Justices Elizabeth T. Clement and Megan K. Cavanagh. “Soon, the entire nation will know what we know here in Michigan – that Joo is an unstoppable force for good.”
Chang got her start in child welfare policy as a staff attorney at the Children’s Defense Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based organization founded in the 1970s by Marian Wright Edelman. She was then brought on by the Seattle-based grant maker Casey Family Programs, which is focused on reducing the number of youth in America who come into foster care, as its senior director of public policy.
In 2013, Chang left Casey to join the Obama administration as its associate commissioner for the Children’s Bureau, the agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that administers most federal funds for child welfare. The bureau oversees Title IV-E, the central entitlement program for federal funds to support foster care payments and adoption subsidies, as well as federal spending on family preservation and independent living programs.
Chang left in the final year of the administration and resumed her role with Casey Family Programs. She joined the administration of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) in 2019.
Justices Clement and Cavanagh singled out for praise Chang’s work on a Rapid Permanency Program this year during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Returning children in foster care to permanent homes quickly and safely during the COVID-19 health crisis made a huge difference for so many at risk children and families,” the justices wrote. Chang’s plan also entailed a massive effort to re-task investigators as outreach personnel, checking in on families who were known to the agency but had not experienced a foster care removal.
In a letter sent to colleagues last week, Chang struck a sober tone in thanking them for the opportunity to be a part of an “extraordinary effort” to reform child welfare in the state:
“After spending nearly two years working on the ground with frontline staff, agency leaders, the courts and community partners in Michigan, I am clear about two things: 1) the work of reforming our child welfare system is a noble and just endeavor; and 2) addressing century-old systems that are rooted in paternalism, racism, and fear of the “other” is tough, complicated, and sometimes disheartening work. “
She called the death of Cornelius Fredericks, a 16-year-old who died after being physically restrained by staff at a Michigan residential facility, “one of the toughest moments of my professional career.”
Fredericks' death prompted Michigan to quickly sever all ties with Sequel, the for-profit operator of the facility in question. The incident also prompted California to pull its youth out of several out-of-state facilities, many run by Sequel.
"After a traumatic childhood, [Frederick] spent the last four years of his life in an institution rather than with family who loved him," Chang wrote. "We must and we can do better than this. Every child deserves a family. We must provide every family the chance to stay whole and to heal together."
She will at least temporarily helm the massive federal agency within HHS that oversees most national programs aimed at assisting and support families, and preventing or protecting children from maltreatment. ACF was overseen in the Trump administration by Lynn Johnson, and the agency was often led by acting bosses, including the late George Sheldon and current New York City child welfare director David Hansell.
Asked about ACF's priorities in the early going of the administration, Chang said one will be "reuniting unaccompanied children at the border with families or sponsors as quickly and as safely as possible." The agency includes the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is tasked with sheltering unaccompanied minors who arrive at the border while a sponsor (usually a parent or relative) is identified for them to live with while they make their claim for asylum. This program swelled under the Trump admininstration due to the infamous family separation policy.
Among the other early priorities Chang mentioned in her email: working with partners to provide better access to coordinated services to prevent family hardship and family violence, and making sure that pandemic-related assistance is getting into communities through ACF's low-income heating program, child support and child care assistance.
Note: This article was updated on Feb. 25 to include Chang's role with the Biden administration.