The duo who ushered in new legal support for system-involved families during the Trump administration are teaming up to spearhead a new venture aimed at working with governments interested in a complete overhaul of the child welfare status quo.
Jerry Milner, who led the U.S. Children’s Bureau under former President Donald Trump, and David Kelly, his former special assistant at the bureau, will co-direct Family Integrity & Justice Works, a new arm of the consulting firm Public Knowledge. The goal of the new division, CEO Stacey Obrecht said, is to help states, local jurisdictions or tribes “replace” child welfare.
“Internally, our child welfare leadership team was looking to demonstrate a new proof of concept to completely reimagine how we deal with families and children,” Obrecht said in an interview with Youth Services Insider. “In their work at the Children’s Bureau, that’s where they had been pushing the policy.”
Joining Milner and Kelly on the Family Integrity & Justice Works staff is Christie Matlock, who worked with them as an independent contractor for the Children’s Bureau, along with Elizabeth Black and Will Hornsby, two members of the Public Knowledge child welfare staff. Black and Hornsby already lead the company’s ongoing assistance on major system reforms in New Jersey, but Obrecht said that work will remain outside of the new division.
“The goal is to make sure they’re not distracted with other work, while the rest of our child welfare team work with clients that are not able to do [reform] in big giant leaps,” Obrecht said.
“We have already had sites that have expressed interest, and we are working to finalize what the criteria would be,” said Kelly. The selections will be guided in part by commitments of interest that extend beyond the child welfare agency and include other parts of government that are involved in community services and the social safety net.
“That was one of the selling points for [joining] Public Knowledge, to be frank,” Milner added.
“Child welfare is one component of what they do. But they work with other kinds of agencies, so we’ll have a more expansive reach.”
“We want to select sites that are committed to a radically changed approach, jurisdictions that are not afraid to take some risk,” Milner said. “It’s going to be a risky process.”
After President Joe Biden’s election in November, some child welfare reformists lobbied for Milner to remain in place at the Children’s Bureau. During his tenure, the bureau had expanded the use of the Title IV-E child welfare entitlement to include a 50% federal match on funds to pay for legal counsel supporting children and parents involved in child welfare cases.
While most states require some guarantee of counsel for both parties, federal funding for lawyers had always been limited to the child welfare agency’s attorneys. Some states only guarantee lawyers for parents late in the progression of cases, when foster care removals have been made and they are facing termination of their parental rights.
Milner and Kelly also used the federal bully pulpit to push hard for a movement upstream in child welfare, with greater investments in family support and primary prevention of maltreatment. While both acknowledged that the Family First Prevention Services Act, signed by Trump in 2018, was an improvement on the IV-E entitlement, they argued frequently that it did nothing to help families before they had reached the point of a child protection investigation.
The two spoke and wrote frequently, including in the pages of The Imprint, about the need to downsize the use of foster care. During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, Milner and Kelly penned an impassioned plea to child welfare agencies to ensure that in-person family time could safely occur.
“The presence of this virus in the world, alone, is not the safety risk that should keep children and parents apart,” they wrote, in an Imprint op-ed. “We expose children, particularly young children who have difficulty understanding separation and infants, to a less contagious but equally harmful threat when we interrupt the parent-child relationship when explicit safety or health reasons do not call for it.”
Obrecht said she was among those who hoped Biden would keep Milner.
“I said if Biden keeps you, that’s the best place for you to be, and I truly believed that,” she said.
“But if you are asked to leave, then I’m here and we want to talk.”
Milner resigned from the Trump administration shortly after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, but had made it clear that he was willing to return after the inauguration. Biden appointed Aysha Schomburg, a former leader at the New York City Administration of Children’s Services, to succeed Milner at the bureau.
Kelly, who was not a political appointee and also served at the bureau during the Obama administration, departed the bureau in May. In an interview on The Imprint Weekly Podcast released in mid-June, he told The Imprint that he was seeking an opportunity to pursue “non-reformist reforms,” a phrase often used by abolitionist Dorothy Roberts to describe changes to child welfare that constitute a significant step on the path to eliminating it in its current form.
Asked what would success look like in replacing an existing child welfare system, Obrecht said, “Essentially, the system goes away the way we know it now. Not that there isn’t a safety net, but, no stranger foster care, no [racial] disproportionality, no taking kids from their home and creating trauma.”
In its place, she said, would be “a family and child well-being system, an anti-racist system that was focused on prevention.”
Family Integrity & Justice Works also shared with Youth Services Insider a list of 18 components of the modern child welfare system that it believes should be replaced, with detail on what they should be replaced with. Some of these, we note, would require changes in federal law and policy.
|To Be Replaced||Replaced with What?|
|Menu-style categorized services, as with the new IV-E Prevention Service Clearinghouse||Robust networks of primary prevention and family support services|
|Categorical funding for foster care and adoption (presumably, this would entail disconnecting locally from most of the federal Title IV-E entitlement)||Funding sources that support "primary prevention, well-being, and family unity"|
|"Over-surveillance" of people of color and poor people through hotline reporting||Warmlines, community response systems and family resource centers|
|"Difficult-to-access service contracts"||Community-based services|
|Maltreatment definitions that confuse poverty with neglect||Re-written neglect definitions|
|Mandatory reporting of neglect "unless harm is clear and imminent"||Mandatory referrals for community- based services|
|"Reasonable efforts" to prevent removals of children, and to reunify children after removals, the current federal standard for most child welfare||"Active efforts" at preventing removal and at reunification, the standard included in the Indian Child Welfare Act|
|Requiring drug tests in the absence of "danger and history of drug misuse"||"Holistic healing plans."|
|Policies that allow or the absence of high-quality legal counsel, or that permit court appointed special advocates (CASA) to represent children in court||High-quality legal representation for all parents and children|
|Using CASAs as advocates for children||Using CASAs as family advocates|
|Case plans that include "boilerplate" services and referrals||Plans created with the input of the parent|
|"Agency-driven" policy making processes||"Parent-driven" policy making|
|Systems that do not assist parents in navigating the child welfare system||Providing peer partners for all parents|
|The use of non-kin for foster care, and group foster care||Kinship care and family finding|
|Incentives for adoption||Incentives for preserving or reuniting families|
|Youth aging out of foster care||No youth aging out without "relational and/or legal permanency," or "ties with families."|
|Timelines toward the termination of parental rights (TPR)||A prohibition on TPR if parents are engaged in treatment or are "within reach of exiting incarceration."|
|"Aggravated circumstances" provisions that allow systems to terminate rights without making efforts to reunify families||Limited and defined instances for bypassing required efforts that do not include a previous termination of rights or substance-exposed newborns|