Vowing to work against racial discrimination and unnecessary family separation, a former foster youth from Connecticut and outspoken advocate for her peers has been named as an advisor to the Biden administration’s child welfare leadership team.
Lexie Grüber-Pérez, most recently a consultant for the Fortune 500 firm Accenture, started working last week as a senior advisor to Aysha Schomburg, associate commissioner of the $10 billion Children’s Bureau. The paid position within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will function “in partnership” with Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based child welfare philanthropy, according to a statement from department spokesperson Kenneth Wolfe.
In her new role, Grüber-Pérez — whose advocacy work has drawn on her difficult years in foster care beginning at age 15 — will assist the associate commissioner on “developing strategic priorities that improve outcomes for children,” Wolfe said. She will also work “with programs and regional partners to address the racial inequities that exist in the child welfare system across this country.”
Wolfe said Grüber-Pérez has earned recognition for her efforts to reform child welfare systems across the country. “She brings deep subject matter expertise and lived experience to the Children’s Bureau, including past work with an affinity group that mobilized people impacted by foster care,” he said.
Schomburg’s early public comments for the Children’s Bureau have emphasized the need to give foster youth a voice in shaping policy, and Grüber-Pérez fits that bill. She has become well-known in the field for her op-eds, participation in town halls, and congressional testimony on the systemic failures of foster care that often draw on her personal experience.
“I can’t begin to express how excited I am to jump wholeheartedly into this role in service of children and families across this country, reimagining and rebuilding the systems that serve them,” she wrote in a Thursday post on Facebook. “Now is the time to address the stark racial disparities, acknowledge the history of criminalizing neglect, and move towards the new systems of care that prevent the need for family separation.”
She also said she will be working “for those touched by the child welfare system and my inbox and phone are always open to you.”
Grüber-Pérez deferred a request for comment to the Children’s Bureau.
The agency’s spokesperson did not answer questions about the partnership with Casey Family Programs and whether it involved funding the senior advisor position Grüber-Pérez is filling. The post is part of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act mobility program, which — according to federal law — allows salary cost-sharing for temporary assignments between federal, state and local government agencies, as well as private organizations such as nonprofits offering “professional advisory, research, educational, or development services, or related services, to governments or universities.”
The goal is to help important institutions meet their needs for “hard-to-fill” positions.
As stated in a January press release from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Casey Family Programs supported similar advisors to governmental agencies in the past, including Sheldon Spotted Elk, placed within the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs as an expert on tribal, juvenile and child welfare law.
A Casey spokesperson referred a request for further comment to the Children’s Bureau.
Grüber-Pérez, 28, graduated magna cum laude from Quinnipiac University with a degree in political science in 2015, the same year she testified about her experience in the foster care system before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee. She joined other professional witnesses that day urging reduced reliance on group care for foster youth, framing her argument in deeply personal terms by describing how Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) placed her in one such facility at age 17.
“There simply wasn’t anywhere else for me to go. I was a great kid, but there weren’t many homes for someone my age, and DCF also felt my anxiety and depression made me a poor fit for a family,” she said. “I was informed they would try to find me a family if I ‘improved my behavior’ — as if my stay in the group home was a trial for me to prove that I was worthy of being loved.”
Grüber-Pérez testified that while she was in the group facility, she felt like “a second-class citizen” in a punitive, business-like environment with locked cupboards, restricted phone usage and movements, forced medication, and no hugs.
Meanwhile, she saw little to no effort being made to find her a family home — even as a willing uncle was denied permission to take her in because his home did not meet foster care licensing requirements.
Despite that turmoil, Grüber-Pérez has steadily risen in her career, beginning with an internship for foster youth arranged by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, and a 2014 stint in the office of former Washington Rep. Jim McDermott (D). She has also worked to promote policies improving school stability for foster youth, greater reliance on relatives, and increased investment in prevention services for at-risk families. In a 2016 op-ed in the Washington Post, she wrote that such an investment could have prevented her from entering foster care in the first place.
Most recently, Grüber-Pérez has worked as a management consultant for the global consulting firm Accenture, helping roll out a digital foster care case management system in North Carolina, and leading focus groups nationwide about a legislative change that affected veterans’ benefits. She’s also consulted with her new employer, the Children’s Bureau, facilitating roundtable discussions with child welfare commissioners at the White House, among other projects. Last fall, she served as a Democratic National Committee Presidential Fellow, supporting the Biden campaign.
She appeared in the Rosario Dawson-produced documentary on youth homelessness, “Lost in America,” and has been a frequent promoter of Children’s Rights, the legal advocacy firm known for filing high-profile, class-action lawsuits on behalf of foster youth. She has sat on their advisory board.
Grüber-Pérez’s path appears to have been set years prior. In a 2013 profile published in the Hartford Courant, she said growing up she saw things she didn’t like in the foster care system and bureaucracies of all types. “I’ve always had a visceral instinct — I’m not just going to live a life, I’m going to leave a legacy,” she told the paper. “That’s how I got through it. I want to look back and say, ‘That was a hell of a ride.’”