President Joe Biden has nominated former Obama official January Contreras to lead the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), the division of the Department of Health and Human Services that oversees child welfare policy.
Biden announced the nomination of Contreras in a press release December 8. If confirmed, Contreras would succeed JooYeun Chang, who has been the acting head of ACF since early 2021. Chang would then presumably continue with the agency in her appointed position as principal deputy assistant secretary.
“I am honored by President Biden’s nomination to lead the vital mission of protecting the safety and well-being of children, and strengthening supports for family safety and economic stability,” said Conteras, in a message posted on her Facebook page. “If confirmed, I’ll work alongside Secretary Xavier Becerra and the ACF team with a sense of urgency each day – for all in our nation.”
Contreras was a health advisor to former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano from 2006 to 2009. When Obama named Napolitano to lead the Department of Homeland Security, Contreras followed her to Washington and served as a senior advisor until 2012.
Since then, 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.
“January has been a leader in advocating for children and families in Arizona for many years,” said David Lujan, president and CEO of the Children’s Action Alliance. “I am thrilled that President Biden is bringing her leadership and experience in improving the lives of children and families into his administration.”
The Administration for Children and Families, with a budget of about $62 billion, oversees many aspects of the federal government’s involvement in the social safety net. In addition to child welfare funding, food stamps, family support payments, early education and child care, and low-income energy assistance are all overseen by ACF.
Contreras’ experience at the Department of Homeland Security will come in handy, because the agency’s most visible program since the mid-2010s has been the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which among other things handles the custody and placement of unaccompanied minors who arrive at the Southern border from Central America. While U.S. policy for Mexican minors is to immediately return them to Mexico, Central American youth who seek asylum are apprehended by border officials and are handed over to ORR, which is responsible for sheltering, feeding and educating them while also seeking out an appropriate sponsor within the United States to place them (often a family member already in the country).
The budget for the unaccompanied minors program exploded in 2014 as the Obama administration grappled with a surge of youth arriving without their parents to seek asylum. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have dealt with similar waves of unaccompanied minors, in addition to the families who arrive together seeking an escape from violence in countries including Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
On the domestic side, Biden’s ACF will preside over the early years of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which was passed in 2018 and took effect nationwide in October of 2021. The law restricts federal funding for congregate care placements under Title IV-E, the entitlement that has historically helped states to fund foster care and adoption. But the law also opens up the IV-E entitlement for spending on services aimed at preventing foster care in some child welfare cases.
The limits on congregate care spending are already in effect for all states. So far, 17 states have had their foster care prevention plans approved by the Administration for Children and Families, with another 20 states under review and 13 yet to submit.
Within ACF, the child welfare work is overseen by the similarly named Administration on Children, Youth and Families. That agency is made up of two offices: the Family and Youth Services Bureau, which deals with runaway and homeless youth policy as well as sexual health and pregnancy prevention, and the U.S. Children’s Bureau, which oversees the IV-E entitlement and most other federal child welfare funds.
Biden appointed Aysha Schomburg to lead the Children’s Bureau — a job that does not require Senate confirmation — last March. In November, he nominated Oregon child welfare director Rebecca Jones Gaston to lead the Administration on Children, Youth and Families.
The last Senate-confirmed leader of ACF was Lynn Johnson, who joined the Trump administration in the fall of 2018 after a somewhat contentious confirmation process.
Note: This story was updated on Wednesday, Jan. 5.