In June of 2018, at the height of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy separating thousands of migrant children from their parents, one presidential appointee delivered a very different message to a small group of American parents who had struggled with the foster care system: Jerry Milner, head of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, emphasized the vital importance of keeping their families together.
“We have many, many children right now who could remain safely with their parents,” Milner said in a taped address. “It is incredibly unfortunate and depressing that we are so willing as a system to pay someone else to care for a child in a foster care situation, or to pay for therapy to try to undo damage that has been done, as opposed to trying to support a family to keep that child safely under their own roof.”
Milner’s post as associate commissioner overseeing foster care will come to an end tomorrow, a post far from public view and not typically known for political controversy. But in an administration that will go down in U.S. history as enacting some of the harshest penalties on marginalized children and families — Milner has issued a stream of remarkable public statements and federal policies that have endeared him to even the strongest critics of the nation’s child welfare system.
In an emailed statement Thursday, just days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, Milner told The Imprint he remained for nearly four years to work from within to achieve his goals: “In staying I could continue to express how deeply family separation traumatizes children and parents and work to change the foster care system so that fewer separations are needed there.”
It is these sympathies that have led some in the child welfare field to call for Milner to be returned to his post when the Democratic administration takes over.
“President Biden should retain Milner to continue this work,” wrote Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan, in a recent op-ed for The Imprint. “With the backing of a new administration that will actually support Milner’s efforts by seriously addressing poverty in America, the promise of a new child welfare system that can partner with families remains within our grasp.”
When asked if he’s interested in returning to his post once Biden is president, Milner declined to respond directly. But in an interview from Washington, D.C., last week he said he has ongoing ambitions in the field, as well as for the $10 billion agency overseeing child welfare systems he has helped run.
“This is my life’s work. In one form or another, I will continue to do this work,” Milner said. “This chair is not the most glamorous place, but it is the place where we can have the greatest amount of impact nationally in terms of promoting a vision that is still very fragile.”
Whoever takes the post, he added, should build upon “the hunger for change and frankly the expectation that we have deliberately created among parents and youth,” that their voices will be considered in policymaking at a federal level.
Milner, 67, was raised in small-town Alabama. He shared that his upbringing was “incredibly modest,” including living in a single-mother household and working in cotton fields. “I had to find my way at a pretty early age,” he said.
After receiving his doctorate in social work at the University of Alabama, Milner later presided over the Alabama state child welfare system as it emerged from landmark litigation over its foster care system, in particular its poor treatment of children with emotional disorders. He took those lessons into the Children’s Bureau during the second Bush administration, as a career employee designing accountability systems for states that are still in place today.
He has spent the past four years as the agency’s top political appointee, trying to convince state and local foster care officials to do as he says — keep families together wherever safely possible — and not to do as other parts of the Trump administration have infamously done at the border. Some state and local officials say his speeches and policies, and those of his top deputy, David Kelly, helped them nudge their own systems more quickly toward needed reforms.
“He stayed laser-focused on the need to strengthen the family and support kids being in their own homes whenever possible,” said Rhenda Hodnett, assistant secretary for Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services. “And I’ll tell you, that started off as a really hard message for some people because the child welfare system gets blamed when something goes wrong.”
Now, attorneys and advocates for children and parents, and a cohort of current and former foster youth who work with the Children’s Bureau, are also speaking out on his behalf. Hundreds have signed a petition urging the Biden-Harris administration to keep him in his current post.
“Foster care alumni nationwide quickly learned that Dr. Milner was not just another politician — he centers his work in the voices and experiences of young people with lived experience,” reads a Change.org petition started by Joshua Christian Oswald of Indiana, a former foster youth who has worked with Milner as a youth engagement coordinator. “His leadership over the past four years in engaging young people in every aspect of his work has shown how federal policymaking can and should be done for years to come.”
Conversations this month with nearly a dozen state child welfare leaders, private foster care agencies, and top advocacy groups including the Child Welfare League of America and the National Foster Youth Institute, revealed broad support for Milner’s vision, in particular the unprecedented flexibility his agency offered states to spend federal child welfare dollars during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Children’s Bureau has frequently urged local governments to remain steadfast on keeping foster children in touch with their parents despite social distancing restrictions, and to extend support to youth aging out of care. Terry Stigdon, director of the Indiana Department of Child Services and a former pediatric nurse, said Milner’s communications about the family visiting issue were especially helpful for encouraging judges in her state to prioritize that vital contact.
“We all just cheered and said ‘Thank you, Jerry!’ because it wasn’t just us standing out there alone,” she said. “This was the federal level saying we need to recognize the trauma of children and parents not being able to see each other.”
To be sure, Milner also has critics among child welfare advocates. They point to frustrations that he never spoke out forcefully about the Trump administration’s family separation policies, nor its efforts to roll back protections for LGBTQ foster youth. In a Thursday email sent through a spokesperson, Milner revealed that the separation issue was a “source of tremendous consternation,” that he expressed his concerns explicitly to leadership about the separation issue, and that he considered resigning over it. Ultimately, he said he decided that leaving “would be meaningless in changing that situation” and would only serve to prevent him from being able to effectively raise concerns.
“We were clear at all times that family separation causes trauma — whether it occurs at the border or through child welfare practices and we should do everything possible to safely avoid it,” he wrote, noting that the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) was not specifically culpable. “This was not a policy that ACF set so we had no ability to undo it. There are no words that can accurately capture how strongly I feel about this issue.”
As recently as Monday, Health and Human Services also erased Obama-era rules that prohibited the government from funding
“We haven’t had any vocal allies in the administration on this fight,” said Christina Wilson Remlin, lead counsel for the pro bono law firm Children’s Rights, which has staunchly opposed the rule change.
In interviews, several state officials also noted the difficult rollout of the sweeping reform known as the Family First Prevention Services Act, which President Donald Trump signed in early 2018. The landmark legislation created a first-ever opportunity for states to receive substantial federal funding for prevention programs that aim to keep families together. The law also made a bold statement about the hazards of congregate care for children, restricting spending on residential facilities.
States have struggled to develop prevention programs that meet the law’s rigorous evidence standards — issues human services officials are eager to see the Biden team address.
“The clearinghouse has been a source of frustration for many states,” Stigdon said, citing tribes as an example. “There may be programs that work in tribal jurisdictions that just haven’t had someone come in and do a peer-reviewed article.” In those areas, she added, a program may work for a particular community, “but they can’t get federal reimbursement through Family First.”
Still, aligned with many advocates, Milner has consistently maintained that he believes child maltreatment allegations against parents too often conflate bad parenting with poverty-related challenges. In contrast with the Trump administration’s proposals to cut lifeline programs such as food aid and Medicaid, he has frequently highlighted the fact that most child protection cases involve neglect, as opposed to physical abuse — an issue inextricably linked with challenges faced by low-income Americans and one that should not necessarily result in children being removed from their families.
Milner is “utterly powerless to create a society in which children born into poverty have the meaningful promise of thriving,” said Martin Guggenheim, a professor of clinical law at New York University School of Law. “The most he can do is mitigate the harm the so-called child welfare system inflicts on children.”
That said, Guggenheim added, Milner set a new standard for his federal post, with his impassioned positions on issues affecting the nation’s vulnerable families. During his time in office, for example, states became newly eligible for millions of dollars in funds to improve legal representation for children and parents, a reform legal advocates tried unsuccessfully to achieve during the Obama presidency.
Some advocates for preserving family bonds, with groups including United Family Advocates and the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, told The Imprint they tried not to be too public about their enthusiasm for Milner during the Trump years, for fear they would bring attention to him that could cost him his job.
“My cohort loves hearing him speak out and write because he says things that are uncommon for a person in his position, least of all in the Trump administration,” said Guggenheim, who noted his family law clinic has seen a boost in law students in recent years, along with growing interest in expanding families’ due process rights. “What it amounted to is buoying the spirits of the new, angry population in my field.”