Team Biden has already started to fill in White House leadership amidst what promises to be the most awkward transition in modern history. It won’t be long until it’s time to start filling in nominees across the executive branch, including some of the key positions on child welfare and juvenile justice.
Youth Services Insider will try to stay keyed into what names are floated once that game gets up and running, and we’ll certainly cover the nominees and appointees once they are officially on the path.
Today, we begin with a look at some of the top jobs and which people in both sectors might fit the bill for them. This is a pre-scuttlebutt exercise: it is not coming from outside knowledge, and it is not predicated on anyone saying they are interested or denying interest.
Assistant Secretary, Administration for Children and Families (ACF)
Commissioner, Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF)
Associate Commissioner, Children’s Bureau (CB)
Association Commissioner, Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB)
ACF is a fairly large division of the Department of Health and Human Services that oversees a lot more than child welfare: family assistance, early childhood and child care, child support enforcement, refugee resettlement and more.
When Trump’s nominee for the position Lynn Johnson was sworn in, she became the first Senate-confirmed person to hold the job since 2010, when Obama nominee Carmen Nazario got the job. When Nazario had to leave abruptly to care for her husband, the Obama administration used acting secretaries through two terms.
One was David Hansell, now the commissioner of New York City’s child welfare agency, and the late George Sheldon, who oversaw child welfare in Florida before joining the administration and Illinois after he left.
If history is a guide for the candidates at these positions, it will be people who worked in the Obama administration, have led state or sizable county child welfare agencies, or both. So the best bet to lead the agency is probably someone with those bona fides.
Hansell is an obvious candidate in that light, although being the head of a heavily covered city child welfare agency is not the easiest path to a smooth confirmation. The New York Administration for Children’s Services is probably the most scrutinized child welfare agency in the country.
Joette Katz has an interesting resume for the job. Katz was an associate judge on the Connecticut Supreme Court before leading the state’s child welfare agency for eight years. When Katz started in 2010, 31% of foster youth lived in congregate care (twice the national average) and 12% lived with relatives (half the national average).
In 2019, the year she retired: 6% living in congregate care, 40% living with relatives.
Jeanne Lambrew, who leads the health and human services department for Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D), was heavily involved in planning and implementation of the Affordable Care Act in her tenure as director of the Office of Health Reform for Obama. She was also at the Department of Health and Human Services and at the White House during the Clinton administration.
A few other folks who fit the bill for ACF, in our humble opinion:
- Robert Gordon, head of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, who is leading the Biden transition team for the entire U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Joan Lombardi, who held multiple roles at ACF in the Obama and Clinton administrations.
- BJ Walker, former child welfare director for Illinois and human services in Georgia.
- Angelo McClain, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers and former head of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.
- Linda Spears, who succeeded McClain in Massachusetts and was once the vice president of policy for the Child Welfare League of America.
- Christine Norbut Beyer, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families
- Kevin Ryan, CEO of Covenant House International and former head of the New Jersey child welfare system
ACYF is the division within ACF that focuses solely on child and family services, and the commissioner oversees both the Children’s Bureau – which manages most of the federal child welfare spending, data and regulation – and the much-smaller Family Youth Services Bureau.
JooYeun Chang, now leading the child welfare division within Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, jumps out as a possibility. Chang led the Children’s Bureau under Obama for a while, and before and after that worked on policy at Casey Family Programs.
Bryan Samuels, Obama’s ACYF commissioner, is still in the field, currently as executive director of the child welfare research-focused Chapin Hall Center at the University of Chicago. Samuels’ successor under Obama, Rafael López, recently joined an online discussion hosted by Biden organizers to discuss child welfare policy.
A few others who could fit as candidates:
- Brenda Donald, who has led Washington, D.C.’s child welfare agency on multiple occasions with a stint at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
- Molly Tierney, who led Baltimore’s child welfare agency for 10 years after overseeing budgeting for human services in Chicago.
- Christine James-Brown, CEO of the Child Welfare League of America since 2007, who led United Way International for three years and the organization’s southeastern Pennsylvania operation for 25 years.
At the Children’s Bureau, it will be interesting to see if the Biden team seriously considers something endorsed by Imprint columnist Vivek Sankaran earlier this week: keeping Trump’s appointee, Jerry Milner, in charge. Milner has won over a faction of child welfare advocates by championing a move upstream in child welfare, reducing the role of foster care, in an outspoken way that is uncommon for someone who answers up the chain to so many people.
If that doesn’t happen, it isn’t unreasonable to think that some of those names for ACYF fit here. After all, Milner was once the director of Alabama’s state child welfare system.
UPDATE: Adding Heather Zenone, senior advisor on child welfare for Rep. Karen Bass (D-California), to this list. Youth Services Insider has heard her name come up, but she should have been on the original list anyway. Zenone helps craft policy for probably the most active member of Congress on child welfare issues, and she came to Bass' office from this part of the executive branch. Zenone was a senior policy advisor on tribal children during the Obama administration, and before that spent nearly a decade as a consultant and analyst on federal policy and legislation.
FYSB, as mentioned, is the smallest of these jobs. The office oversees a bit of an odd mix of federal grant programs: services and shelter for runaway and homeless youth, teen pregnancy prevention, and family violence prevention.
There are probably quite a few heads of local youth homelessness services that could be candidates here – Deborah Shore, longtime head of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, and Sparky Harlan at the Bill Wilson Center, come to mind). Among the people on the national scene that you could see in the job:
- Nan Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness
- Darla Bardine, executive director of the National Network for Youth
- Mishaela Durán, who is already at ACF as director of the Office of Regional Operations
- Melinda Giovengo (CEO) or Degale Cooper (chief program officer) at YouthCare in Seattle
- Larry Cohen, co-founder and executive director of Point Source Youth.
Assistant Attorney General, Office of Justice Programs (OJP)
Administrator, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP)
OJJDP is a relatively small agency within the Office of Justice Programs, and during the Obama administration it was stripped of its Senate confirmation requirement. So in terms of political stature, the difference between the two agencies is massive.
Normally, YSI would not assume that someone with a juvenile justice focus is a likely choice for the job at OJP, which oversees the justice-related research and federal relations with state and local law enforcement. But Biden’s campaign platform on justice included a $1 billion investment in juvenile justice research, which if it actually got approved would constitute a sizable chunk of the OJP budget.
One name jumps out from the juvenile justice field with experience running big government bureaucracies, and that is Vincent Schiraldi. Now at Columbia University as co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab, Schiraldi oversaw the transformation of Washington, D.C.’s juvenile justice agency and then led the New York City probation department.
He is an outspoken reformer who has been on a crusade to sell big systems on scrapping big juvenile prisons in favor of realignment around community alternatives and a small array of residential options.
On paper, he is a perfect fit if what Biden wants on domestic justice policy is someone ready to shake things up.
Two of Schiraldi’s colleagues at the Justice Lab might have the requisite background to be serious candidates for OJP. Patrick McCarthy led the juvenile justice department in Delaware, Biden’s home state, and then led the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation. Gladys Carrión led the child welfare and juvenile justice agency for New York State and New York City, presiding over a large downsizing of incarceration settings for youth during those tenures.
The safe money, though, is on the OJP head being someone with a strong professional tie to the attorney general, and not some juvenile justice champion. In which case, would any of the aforementioned three be willing to take the OJJDP administrator job?
Perhaps. Schiraldi was a candidate for it under Obama, when it still required Senate confirmation, but his chances were stifled pretty much entirely by the work of one Washington Post columnist critical of his reforms in D.C. It will certainly be easier for Biden to put a firebrand in the job if he wants to, because he won’t need permission.
Three of the past four appointed administrators – Shay Bilchik (Clinton), Bob Flores (Bush) and Caren Harp (Trump) – were former prosecutors. Obama’s appointee, Bob Listenbee, was a public defender.
If the Biden administration follows that trend, one name that makes sense would be Kristen Henning, a law professor at Georgetown and also director of the university’s juvenile justice clinic. During her time as a public defender in Washington, D.C., Henning organized a juvenile justice specialty unit within the office.
Should Biden break away from that mold, there are a number of people whose resumes blend leadership experience and national presence. One is Jeff Fleischer, who has been CEO of the Harrisburg, Penn.-based Youth Advocate Program (YAP), one of the few national organizations providing alternatives to incarceration around the country. YAP was founded by Tom Jeffers in the 1970s, but it was Fleischer who presided over its growth into a national entity after he took over as CEO in 2003.
Kevin Bethel, former deputy police commissioner in Philadelphia, helped build a juvenile diversion program within Philadelphia schools to help stem the tide of law enforcement referrals coming from school incidents. He is now a Stoneleigh Foundation fellow with the Center for Children’s Law and Policy.
Judge Ernestine Gray is set to retire after more than 30 years presiding over the juvenile court in New Orleans. We have no idea if she would stave off retirement for a federal gig, but there is probably no judge in the country with more experience in juvenile justice than she.
Same goes for former Massachusetts juvenile judge Jay Blitzman, now a lecturer at Harvard Law School. Before donning the robes, Blitzman founded the Roxbury Youth Advocacy Project, an interdisciplinary defender unit he directed, and in 1994 he helped start Citizens for Juvenile Justice, perhaps the strongest state advocacy group on juvenile justice in the country.
Some other qualified candidates:
- Marsha Levick, chief legal officer at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
- Michael Dempsey, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators and former head of juvenile justice for the Indiana Department of Corrections.
- Clinton Lacey, director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services.
NOTE: This column was included to include Heather Zenone as a person whose background on federal policy and in the executive branch makes her a candidate.