January Contreras was confirmed to lead Biden’s Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in April of 2022. Now, just a little over a year into her tenure, she has announced she will leave the administration in August to return to Arizona.
“There is no greater calling than putting our hands to work for others,” said Assistant Secretary Contreras in an ACF statement issued this week. “I will be forever proud to have led the ACF family in service to the hard working people of this great country.”
The statement suggests that Contreras and her family will return to Arizona in connection with a new position that her husband, Carlos, has taken.
Jeff Hild, the principal deputy assistant secretary for ACF, will become acting assistant secretary upon Contreras’ departure. Hild was a legislative director on Capitol Hill for seven years before becoming the chief of staff at ACF during President Obama’s second term. He was policy director for the Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at George Washington University before joining the Biden administration.
Contreras was a health advisor to former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) from 2006 to 2009. She followed Napolitano to Washington when Obama tapped her to lead the Department of Homeland Security, serving as Napolitano’s senior advisor until 2012. After that, Contreras was CEO of Arizona Legal Women and Youth Services, which provides no-cost legal services for current and former foster youth, youth who are homeless or have run away, and unaccompanied minors who have crossed the Southern border.
Her experience with unaccompanied minors and immigration issues undoubtedly helped make her a prime candidate for the ACF job, which before her nomination was held for more than a year on an interim basis by JooYeun Chang, a former Obama child welfare official who is now the program director for child well-being at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. While ACF’s purview is largely to operate federal child and family programs from food stamps and foster care to senior living, the agency’s involvement in asylum cases has become its most visible and politically testy operation.
In the only truly national foster care program, ACF takes custody of children who arrive from countries other than Mexico or Canada in search of asylum. The agency and its many contractors are responsible for sheltering, educating and securing sponsors for youth in these cases. The number of unaccompanied youth seeking asylum exploded during the Obama administration and has remained high, driving the annual budget for that program from a few hundred million a year into the multi-billion dollar range.
In an interview just four months ago, Contreras sat down with Imprint reporter Michael Fitzgerald to discuss the administration’s priorities in the lead-up to the 2024 election. She named three: executing the Family First Act’s provisions around preventing foster care in certain child welfare cases; better supporting older youth who transition from foster care into adulthood; and increasing the system’s reliance on and support of kinship caregivers.
“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,” Contreras said.
That same month, ACF issued new proposed rules aimed at making it easier for states to differentiate between licensure of foster parents and approval for kinship caregivers. If the rules are finalized, the regulations confirm states have the option to make foster care licensing easier for a child’s kin, while allowing them to receive the same financial help as foster parents.
Who will succeed Contreras? It will almost assuredly be someone in an acting capacity as the president seeks reelection, either someone from the career staff at ACF or someone brought in to shepherd the agency into a potential second Biden term. Youth Services Insider does not see a full nomination and confirmation process going forward for this job until after November, and it’s possible that it will be acting hires from here on out.
President Obama, for example, only had one leader for ACF confirmed: Carmen Nazario, who left the position after less than a year to care for an ailing spouse. Nazario was followed by David Hansell, now with Casey Family Programs; when Hansell left to lead New York City’s child welfare agency, he was followed by another acting chief, George Sheldon. After Sheldon left, the post was filled by one of his deputies, Mark Greenberg.
Note: This story was updated on Thursday, June 29.