Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families January Contreras says she will focus on helping people who take care of relatives’ kids and supporting, encouraging, and when necessary, pushing states to prevent foster care.
In a wide-ranging, in-person interview in her Washington, D.C. office late last month, President Biden’s top child welfare official had a central message: the importance of implementing the 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act, a sweeping, bipartisan federal law that is among the most significant national foster care reforms in recent history. The law allows states to draw on federal funds before children are taken into foster care — a critical investment in prevention services to keep the most at-risk families intact whenever possible.
But five years in, too few states have taken full advantage of the law known as Family First, advocates and child welfare experts say.
In an hour-long interview, January Contreras described her weekly meetings to discuss those challenges, along with other priorities she described as vital, including supporting kinship caregivers, and the importance of youth participation in policy discussions. She touched on legal representation for system-involved children, informed by her work as the founder of a legal aid clinic in Arizona for young people. She also called pervasive racial disparities in the child welfare system “a call to action,” and said states need to consider the differences between poverty and child neglect when investigating parents for maltreatment — something she said she and her agency’s other leaders will use their “bully pulpit” to spread the word about.
Contreras described the synergy she feels with many families in the child welfare system, because members of her family have struggled with substance abuse. She said her childhood reflects the importance of “kinship caregiving” — in her case, the role her grandparents played in caring for her when her mother worked nights. She wants her agency to boost support for grandparents, aunts, uncles and family friends who care for vulnerable children.
“We know through the data that kids do better if they cannot be with their parents — they’re going to do better if they’re with family,” Contreras said. “They’re going to have more long-term stability. They’re going to have a greater sense of belonging, a greater sense of that unconditional love that can be so core so you can grow up to be the best version of yourself.”
Contreras, a married mother of two adult sons with a law degree from the University of Arizona, does not have direct professional experience in the child welfare field. But 30% of her legal aid clients were either in or had exited the child welfare system; and she noted she has also advised and led high-level branches of government on a variety of related issues, including the Family First law and the needs of LGBTQI+ foster youth.
She has also worked as a Maricopa County prosecutor, and narrowly lost the competitive 2018 state attorney general campaign against a Republican incumbent. Her candidacy earned public support from then-President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, and she listed child welfare as being among “top areas where she would advocate for Arizonans,” according to the Arizona Republic.
Confirmed last March for her current role in President Biden’s administration with the bipartisan support of five Republicans and 49 Democrats, Contreras oversees a budget of roughly $75 billion and 1,500 federal employees with 10 regional offices across the country. Her office under the Department of Health and Human Services includes the Children’s Bureau and divisions focused on human trafficking, refugee resettlement, and financial aid such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, among others.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
We have around 18 months until the next presidential campaign season. So, 18 to 20 months from now, what do you think will be the biggest change in federal child welfare policy that your administration will have made? What will be the biggest policy change that families involved in child welfare might feel?
I’d start with our work towards prevention — I’m really focused on how we are supporting families upstream so that they don’t have to reach that crisis point where the worst options are on the table. That’s really executing on the Family First Prevention Services Act. It’s a 50-state strategy — who already has their plans in, who’s approved, are they claiming funds yet, who’s not approved, and how are we responding to them?
Along with that, it’s our focus on kinship caregiving. My mom worked nights, I stayed with my grandparents for a few years, and that’s the way families work — when you’re lucky, when you’re blessed that way, where you have family support to fill in when a parent isn’t quite able to carry that whole responsibility. We’re working on regulatory action in that space so that we can create greater equity for kinship caregivers, for all those grandparents and aunts and uncles and siblings.
We want a real focus on kids coming out of the foster care system, as well as all those young adults experiencing housing instability, including parenting and pregnant youth as well, so that we’re trying to build systems that work for them and that they can easily find.
What were the big lessons you took from your prior work that you’re applying here in the Administration for Children and Families (ACF)?
The reality that there are young people out there who don’t have consistent adults to help show them the way means we can’t fail in our work at ACF. I handled a lot of cases that were sad and horrible, everything from human trafficking to truly predatory domestic violence to young kids who had been adopted from the other side of the world and then kept in a closet when they were brought to Arizona.
I became involved quite a bit with the youth who transitioned out of foster care in Arizona. And then I worked with a youth advisory council. And they’re bringing policy recommendations to the state Legislature that are more compelling than anything anyone else could come up with. They just want to be able to visit their siblings. Sometimes it’s this common sense stuff — very, very basic adolescent rites of passage — getting a driver’s license, being close to your siblings, that they can be robbed of. And so I really see our work as what can we do to support them? How can we support states in their work to support kids?
“I’m really focused on how we are supporting families upstream so that they don’t have to reach that crisis point where the worst options are on the table.”
There was a debate on Capitol Hill last year over expanding access to lawyers for foster youth. Given your background as a children’s lawyer, as opposed to a social worker or caseworker like many people in this field, what do you think about the role or importance of legal representation?
We can see both anecdotally and through data that giving a kid a lawyer really improves their outcomes. That’s true in the immigration system too.
I represented a young woman who exited the foster care system. She entered a runaway and homeless youth program, and all she wanted was a driver’s license. But she had been born and immediately placed in the foster care system, adopted — that was terminated, adopted again, and that was terminated again. Somewhere along the way, her name had been changed in one set of papers and not the other. She was just trapped and unable to get a license because she just couldn’t prove who she was. And so we actually had to file a motion to unseal adoption paperwork in order for her to prove this was her and for her to get a license.
A lot of people underestimate how many legal issues appear for kids and young people — because it’s not fair. They shouldn’t have legal issues when they’re that young, but they so often do.
I grew up with substance abuse in my home and had some of those issues, which always made me want to be a part of a solution for other people — because my sister and I made it through some rocky years and sometimes it feels like maybe you won’t make it.
How often are you meeting with youth or parents in your current role?
A lot, and I love that because I’ve always believed there are two things that really reflect your values as a public servant. One of them is your calendar, and the other is your budget. I think that’s something that this leadership team brings to the table, a very strong commitment to dialogue and problem-solving with people with lived experience.
I can’t take credit for them, but that includes our Children’s Bureau associate commissioner, Aysha Schomburg, and our new Administration on Children, Youth and Families commissioner, Rebecca Jones-Gaston. They’re just an all-star team who are really committed to kids and families, and there’s not a lot of ego in our room.
And so, yes, I’ve had a lot of opportunities.
“I’ve always believed there are two things that really reflect your values as a public servant. One of them is your calendar, and the other is your budget.”
President Biden issued an executive order in 2021, asking every federal agency to make their systems more equitable for people of color and other underserved groups. A United Nations committee on eliminating racial discrimination, and advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch have recently issued reports and recommendations suggesting major federal child welfare laws such as the Adoption and Safe Families Act are having a disparate impact on racial and ethnic minority families.
What has your agency done to respond to President Biden’s order, and what did you think of those criticisms of federal child welfare laws?
I can’t speak to what their specific criticisms or recommendations were.
But I think when outside groups are pushing to address inequities in government, that’s an accountability measure that is good for government. Most importantly, we need to hold ourselves accountable. And it’s an area where Associate Commissioner Schomburg has been very active and meeting with states directly.
We put out the annual Child Maltreatment Report. And this year, for the first time in many years — not the first time ever — we pulled out a lot of information by race so that we let the data speak for itself. But you see that disproportionate representation at pretty much every level. We really hope that leaders in our field will use this information as we do, as a call to action. We do need to do more to reduce racial inequities in child welfare.
Have you had any conversations with members of Congress about what their priorities are going to be, and where you might be able to work with them, especially given the divided party control of the House and Senate?
I have had meetings scheduled with members of Congress, and some were changed due to busy calendars of members. I met with leaders of both parties on the Ways and Means Committee in 2022. I know it can sometimes look like the polarization of the political world is something where nothing breaks through, but I absolutely have experienced that that’s not true when it comes to kids in the foster care system.
I had members of the U.S Senate who are Republican and Democrat both telling me: ‘Your job is to live out all the hopes and dreams that surrounded the Family First Prevention Services Act. ‘We envisioned a transformation and we expect you to help make that happen.’ And I don’t forget that because, it isn’t always the case that you have members of different parties rooting for the same thing and really seeing ACF and our work as part of the solution.
The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is currently facing a Supreme Court case that could see the landmark federal law designed to keep indigenous children in their native communities overturned. If that happens, what might your administration do in response?
We have been working closely with the Department of Interior to make sure that we’re creating resources for tribes, no matter what happens with the litigation. So at ACF in particular, we’re less focused on speaking about the litigation and more about what we can be doing to promote more state, tribal and court collaboration.
We have a series of convenings happening through May on the values of ICWA, on being unequivocal that we believe ICWA represents the gold standard and we will do everything in our power to support that kind of collaboration between states and tribes and courts. Because at the end of the day, ICWA was put in place for a reason. And that is the history of forced separation of kids and families in Native communities. And we don’t want to be a part of disrupting protections from that.