Gavin Newsom Names Kimberley Johnson to Head California Child Welfare System

Kimberley Johnson, Gavin Newsom’s choice to lead California’s child welfare agency. Photo courtesy of Linkedin

Kimberley Johnson has been announced as the new director of the California Department of Social Services (DSS), which oversees the state’s county-run child welfare system.

“I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to serve as Director of Social Services under Gov. [Gavin] Newsom’s administration,” Johnson said in an email statement to The Chronicle of Social Change. “As a former beneficiary of public assistance myself, his vision to reduce child poverty and improve the well-being of Californians across the state truly resonates with my own sense of mission.”

Johnson is a veteran administrator with a strong background in early childhood education. Prior to her appointment, Johnson had been serving since 2018 as the deputy director of the Family Engagement and Empowerment at DSS. Prior to that, Johnson also worked as the branch chief of CalWorks (California’s version of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program) and branch chief of child care and refugee programs.

DSS has an annual budget of about $31 billion and provides benefits for about 6.1 million California residents, including some of its most vulnerable populations. According to January 2019 data, California has 59,152 children and youth placed in out-of-home care, the highest number in the country. In addition to foster care, the agency oversees several other safety-net programs, including the state’s in-home supportive services programs, CalWorks, Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary payments, CalFresh (the state’s food stamps program) and disability programs, among others.

From 2012 to 2015, Johnson was public policy director for the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, a membership organization that represents local child care resource and referral agencies across the state. Prior to that, she managed the California Early Childhood Mentor Program at the City College of San Francisco and worked on training and program management for the Children’s Network of Solano County.

Johnson inherits an agency that will soon have a big decision to make on behalf of the state’s 58 county-level child welfare agencies. The Family First Prevention Services Act, an overhaul of federal child welfare financing, takes effect on October 1 of this year. The law for the first time enables systems to use Title IV-E entitlement funds for services aimed at preventing the need for foster care in some child welfare cases. But it also restricts federal dollars for placing children in group homes and other “congregate care” options.

States can seek up to a two-year delay on the law’s congregate care limitations, but forfeit access to the front-end services until they comply. California is expected to delay, but as of early June had not formally informed the federal Department of Health and Human Services of that decision. Even though counties oversee most child welfare operations, DSS will have to opt in or delay on behalf of all those agencies.

Many of California’s largest counties are currently operating under a federal waiver that offers them flexibility in how they spend their IV-E money. Those waivers are slated to end when Family First kicks in this October, but Los Angeles (one of the waiver counties) is leading a lobbying effort to extend the waivers for two more years.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) made the announcement yesterday on his office’s website. Johnson, 41, replaces Will Lightbourne, who stepped down at the beginning of the year after serving in the post since 2011.

As DSS director, Johnson will earn $207,849 a year.

This article has been updated to include comment from Johnson.

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 353 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at