In a process that moved at light speed compared with the previous nominee to the job, January Contreras has been confirmed by the Senate to lead the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), the agency that oversees most federal spending on family services and child welfare.
Contreras, a former Obama official, was nominated by President Joe Biden to lead ACF in December and had her confirmation hearing in February.
“The Administration for Children and Families is vital to helping many children, families, and individuals thrive — and even survive,” Contreras said, in a post on her LinkedIn page. “In working with the talented ACF team and our partners across the nation, I will be focused on delivering on the mission each and every day.”
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.
Contreras has served as 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. She ran for Arizona attorney general in 2018, losing by three percentage points to Mark Brnovich.
Her experience at Homeland Security is, Youth Services Insider would guess, highly relevant to the administration tapping her for this role. While ACF presides over billions of dollars to assist low-income families, and to help states pay for child welfare services, its most public face is now the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and more specifically the Unaccompanied Children (UC) program within that division. The budget for UC has exploded in the past decade as more Central American minors attempted the journey through Mexico to the border without their parents, often seeking asylum and a sponsorship inside the United States while the legal proceedings were pending. In 2012, Congress appropriated $267 million for unaccompanied minors; the recently approved spending deal for 2022 includes $8 billion for the same program.
Contreras’ experience with legal services in that space is helpful, because part of the new appropriations is $558 million for legal services and child advocates to help unaccompanied children. This is meant to patch a particularly absurd hole in the program: youth awaiting asylum hearings are not guaranteed legal counsel, which means the prospect of small children and teenagers facing an immigration judge to argue their asylum claim without an attorney.
Contreras tributed her family for preparing her for the position.
“It is in my DNA to care for others, to work hard, and, in the most difficult of times, to simply survive. I honor my nana and tata and my mom and dad — who overcame many obstacles to build a life that would one day allow their little girl to serve the people of our amazing country in this way.”
Rebecca Jones Gaston, Biden’s pick to lead the Administration on Children, Youth and Families — the corner of ACF that most directly handles child welfare policy — has yet to receive a confirmation vote by the full Senate. Jones Gaston had a joint confirmation hearing with Contreras back in February.
The confirmation process for Contreras moved considerably faster than it did for the Trump-nominated Lynn Johnson, who was announced in the summer of 2017 and was not confirmed until the fall of 2018. Her process was tied up somewhat in a dispute over Trump’s plan to limit new child welfare data collection planned by the Obama team, an issue that is still tied up in court today.