New York Mayor-elect Eric Adams has appointed Jess Dannhauser, the former CEO of major child welfare provider Graham Windham, to serve as his commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).
In announcing the hire on Twitter, Adams indicated that his administration would prioritize investments in primary prevention of child abuse and neglect.
“For too long, we have taken a downstream approach to children’s welfare, setting up too many kids — particularly in Black and Brown communities — for a lifetime of challenges,” Adams said in a Dec. 30 tweet. “Under Jess Dannhauser’ leadership, [ACS] will take an upstream approach for young New Yorkers at risk.”
Dannhauser will succeed David Hansell, a former child welfare official in the Obama administration who led ACS through most of the tenure of Mayor Bill de Blasio, on Jan. 4.
“I’m grateful to Mayor Adams and Deputy Mayor [Anne] Williams-Isom and thrilled to get to work, building on what’s been accomplished over many administrations,” Dannhauser said, in an email to Youth Services Insider. “We are ready to listen, learn and partner to do right by NYC’s kids and families.”
The Administration for Children’s Services oversees New York City’s child welfare system, including family enrichment centers, in-home family preservation services, foster care, adoption and residential settings. It also operates the city’s juvenile justice system, which includes probation, two pretrial detention centers and several small secure facilities for post-adjudication.
The appointment of Dannhauser, who has served on Adams’ transition team for child welfare, drew quick approval from several youth and family advocates and child welfare leaders in the city.
“Jess is an experienced and sensitive leader with a heart for kids and families and a clear vision for the future of child welfare,” said Jeremy Kohomban, CEO of The Children’s Village, in an email to Youth Services Insider. “We are fortunate to have Jess’ experience, passion and competence at ACS. He will build on the successful leadership provided by our outgoing Commissioner, David Hansell.”
Joyce McMillan, a parents’ rights activist in the city and outspoken critic of Dannhauser’s predecessor, Hansell, also praised the choice. In a Dec. 30 tweet, McMillan said she was “anxious about who the incoming Commissioner would be,” but now has hope, congratulating Dannhauser on the appointment.
Dannhauser led Graham Windham, a 215-year-old nonprofit provider of foster care and family services, from 2012 until October of this year. He came to the organization from ACS, where he served as the associate commissioner for performance measurement, monitoring and improvement. Before that he served as chief of staff to former ACS Commissioner John Mattingly, and as a special assistant at the Department of Homeless Services.
Dannhauser assumes the top job at ACS amid growing calls for the city to dramatically change the front end of the system. The city council received a bill that would guarantee Miranda-style warnings and the offer of legal counsel for parents, which the current administration pushed back on; the legislation failed to receive a vote.
Last March, Dannhauser was among city child welfare leaders who at a March 2021 online panel criticized the surveillance of New York City families via the hotline reporting process. Dannhauser called it “astonishing” how easily anonymous callers can send the government into someone’s home, and the delivery services by the same agency that investigates families presents an inherent conflict.
“Families tell us they experience the support as surveillance, at least in that early stage,” he said. “No matter our intention, the experience is what matters.”
During Hansell’s tenure, ACS opened three family enrichment centers (the process to develop hose began under his predecessor, Gladys Carrión), which are meant to be a voluntary, drop-in approach to helping families without the involvement of hotline reports and investigations. Graham Windham housed one of the original three centers.
In May, the de Blasio administration announced plans to expand the network of these centers from three to 33 sites. The plan has received pushback from some advocates who believe that such programs cannot be led by an agency with the power to investigate and separate families.
“The fear of reaching out for help is real in NYC, and if we keep putting funding into community centers that are connected to systems, parents will never thrive and get what they really need,” said Jeanette Vega, co-director of the organization Rise, in an interview with The Imprint when the expansion was announced.
Dannhauser has supported the idea of family enrichment centers, but has also voiced support for a concept supported by its critics: the development of community-led family support programs that are not tethered to ACS.
The ACS top job is one of the most high-profile positions in child welfare, and a similar posting remains open across the country. Bobby Cagle, head of the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, departs the office this week. His deputy, Virginia Pryor, will lead the department until a permanent hire is made by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
Correction: This article previously mentioned that David Hansell was a candidate for a top child welfare job in the Biden administration: assistant secretary for children and families. Another candidate has recently been nominated for the position.