After a confirmation process that included a standoff over the Trump administration’s delay of new data collection on foster care and adoption, Lynn Johnson was confirmed to lead the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) just before the Labor Day weekend.
Johnson was the executive director of the Jefferson County Department of Human Services. The county sits just outside of the Denver area, and its hub is Golden, Colo., the headquarters of the Coors Brewing Company. Before that, she served in leadership roles at the state level – first as human services policy advisor for former Colorado Governor Bill Owens (R), and then as chief of staff to former Colorado Lieutenant Gov. Jane Norton.
At ACF, one of the largest divisions of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), she inherits an agency that will preside over the child welfare reforms enacted in the Family First Prevention Services Act. The law, which was signed by Trump in February as part of a temporary spending agreement, opens up the Title IV-E entitlement once limited to foster care and adoption spending to be used for efforts at preventing the need for foster care with families in crisis.
The law also significantly curtails federal spending on congregate care placements such as group homes, residential centers and institutions.
Jerry Milner, associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau, has run point on Family First for HHS, touring states to discuss the implications and recently testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee on how preparation for the new law is progressing. The administration also proposed in its most recent budget plan an alternative to Family First in which states could opt for a more flexible but capped allocation of child welfare funds.
ACF’s purview also includes the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program, which is operated by its Office of Refugee Resettlement to safely situate those younger than 18 seeking refuge in America. Since 2012, when the number of unaccompanied minors from Central America seeking asylum in the U.S. began to skyrocket, the budget and attention to the UAC program has increased as well.
When the Trump administration commenced its since-discontinued policy of separating families at the border, it placed the children taken from parents into UAC, many of them infants or very young babies. Of the approximately 3,000 children separated, about 500 still remain in the program.
Johnson was confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 67 to 28. One of those “Yea” votes was Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), which suggests that a deal might have been reached over ACF’s announcement this fall that it would delay for two years the new rules around the collection of data under the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), which were approved in late 2016 by the Obama administration. ACF also asked for public comments on what new rules might be onerous or questionable to states, suggesting it might also revise the rules.
The updated AFCARS collection incorporates, for the first time in decades, data elements related to several key pieces of child welfare legislation that have passed. Among the new items to be collected were data related to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), educational stability of foster youth, the disruption of adoptions and guardianships, and information about the sexual orientation of foster youth and families.
During the recent public comment period, several states bemoaned the lack of financial assistance for complying with the new collection requirements. ACF also received a slew of comments for and against the ICWA and sexual orientation segments.
At Johnson’s March confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, ranking member Wyden expressed admiration for Johnson but said he would not support her confirmation because of the announced delay.
“I need to be clear that your nomination isn’t going forward with my support unless there is a commitment to get this done, with a timeline,” Wyden said, at the hearing. “For all those people watching [at HHS], while I’ve seen you do good work, I won’t clear you with my support unless there is a timeline to get this rule out.”
Wyden was not one of the two Democrats to support Johnson at the July Finance Committee vote on her confirmation, and his support now could be based on some agreement on the AFCARS dispute. Youth Services Insider has heard the delay has been limited to one year, and we are working to find more details from the Trump administration.
Johnson is the first person to be confirmed for the top job at ACF since Carmen Nazario, Obama’s first choice for the agency, who began in 2009 but left the following year to take care of an ailing spouse. ACF’s longest-tenured acting leader under Obama was George Sheldon, former child welfare director in Florida and Illinois, who passed away last month.
Within ACF, most of the child welfare and family services fall under the division known as the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF), which is comprised of the Children’s Bureau and the Family and Youth Services Bureau. Trump’s choice to lead ACYF – Elizabeth Darling, former CEO of the Texas-based OneStar Foundation – has yet to be confirmed.
Milner, of the Children’s Bureau, has served as acting commissioner of ACYF. The Family and Youth Services Bureau is led by William Wubbenhorst.