New Governors Start Appointing Child Welfare Leadership (UPDATED)

Former Obama official Jeanne Lambrew (fourth from left) is among the slate of child welfare leaders put forward already by newly elected governors.

Since January, several new governors have hit the ground running with new leadership to oversee family services, maltreatment prevention, foster care and adoption. Here are a the states where new directors have already been announced for those spots.

Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS): Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) appointed a young business leader of a family-run career training company to lead DHSS. Adam Crum, a Northwestern graduate who earned a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins, has served as executive vice president of Northern Industrial Training.

Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF): Gov.Elect Ned Lamont (D)’s team conducted a national search to field candidates to succeed Joette Katz, a former state Supreme Court justice who led the agency under Gov. Dannel Malloy (D). The answer ended up being in-state: DCF regional administrator Vanessa Dorantes will replace her old boss. Dorantes, who joined the agency as a social worker at age 23, has been with DCF for 27 years.

Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF): Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has tapped Chad Poppel, who headed the Department of Management Services under former Gov. Rick Scott (R), to lead DCF. Poppel has served as a lobbyist for IBM since leaving the Scott administration, during which time the company secured several contracts with DCF.

Poppel will oversee a potentially turbulent time for Florida child welfare. Florida has for more than a decade operated under a federal waiver that allows it maximum flexibility to spend funds through the Title IV-E entitlement.

Unless federal bridge legislation is passed that lets Florida keep the waiver, DCF has until October to either implement a new federal structure for IV-E or take a delay and revert to the old, normal structure. Either way, it will mean significant administrative changes to how the state draws in critical federal dollars.

Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS): On Feb. 19, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) swore in Tom Rawlings, who had been the interim director since July 2018. He stepped in for Virginia Pryor when she left to join former Georgia child welfare director Bobby Cagle. Cagle took the top job at the Los Angeles Department of Children and Families in the fall of 2017.

Since his appointment, Rawlings has been grappling with an increasing number of children entering the system. The number of youth in state foster care skyrocketed from 7,761 in 2012 to 14,942 in 2018. At a budget hearing last month, Rawlings discussed DFCS’ need for more funds to pay foster parents, and the agency’s plans to comply with the recently passed Family First Prevention Services Act by 2020.

Idaho Department of Health & Welfare: Gov.-Elect Brad Little (R) has named health insurance executive Dave Jeppesen to lead the agency. Jeppesen was the chief strategy and innovation officer for Blue Cross of Idaho. Jeppesen’s previous career experience was in the financial sector, with stints at Barclays and Capital One.

Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS): Beverly “BJ” Walker, acting director of DCFS, has stepped down from her position. Walker was appointed by former Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) in 2017, but was never confirmed in her position. Newly elected Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) has launched a nationwide search for Walker’s replacement. DCFS Deputy Director Debra Dyer-Webster, who has been with the agency for 27 years, is currently serving as the interim director.

Walker replaced George Sheldon, who resigned in 2017 after a series of child deaths. Sheldon passed away last year.

Kansas Department of Children and Families (DCF): Gov.-Elect Laura Kelly (D) will replace Gina Meier-Hummel with Laura Howard, at least for now. Howard, who has an interim tag on the appointment, was previously a regional administrator in a federal agency overseeing substance abuse and mental health services. The announcement was made amidst some friction between the governor-elect and outgoing DCF leadership last week.

Maine Department of Health and Human Services: Janet Mills (D), succeeding the ever-controversial Paul LePage (R), has named Jeanne Lambrew to head up DHHS. Lambrew was heavily involved in planning and implementation of the Affordable Care Act in her tenure as director of the Office of Health Reform at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under former President Barack Obama. Lambrew was also an HHS and White House official for the Clinton administration, and in between was a professor at George Washington University and the University of Texas.

UPDATE: Gov. Mills has hired Todd Landry to head up the Office of Child and Family Services, the agency within DHHS that oversees child welfare services. Landry, who starts in late April, is the CEO of the Fort Worth, Texas-based Lena Pope, a nonprofit that provides educational and early learning services in the Tarrant County area.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS): Robert Gordon was named director of DHHS by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) in January. Gordon comes to the position from serving as senior vice president of finance and global strategy for the nonprofit College Board. Prior to that, he held positions at the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration.

Gordon’s appointment comes on the heels of a scathing report in September, which found that between 2014 and 2016 the state had often failed to complete background checks or conduct proper interviews in the course of investigating maltreatment claims. Michigan has been under a court monitored settlement agreement since 2008, the result of a class-action lawsuit filed against it by Children’s Rights.

Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS): In January, Gov. Tim Walz (D) appointed former State Sen. Tony Lourey to serve as commissioner of DHS. Lourey had served in the legislature since 2007 and comes from a large family with both biological and adopted siblings. He and his wife also have both biological and adopted children.

In an interview last month with MinnPost.com, Lourey said the nexus between substance abuse and mental health would be a focal point of human services for the administration.

“There’s a 70 percent overlap between mental health and addiction,” Lourey told reporter Andy Steiner. “If we’re not going to put these two things together we are not going to succeed. We have to have that lens.”

New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD): Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has tapped an attorney well known to California youth advocates to lead CYFD. Brian Blalock will leave his post as law and policy director at the anti-poverty group Tipping Point for Santa Fe. Blalock has been a staunch champion for improved assistance to older youth in foster care who are at high risk for homelessness and other bad outcomes.

Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS): Gov.-elect Mike DeWine (R), who as a U.S. Senator was deeply involved in the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, has selected a child welfare leader. Kimberly Hall, general counsel for the Columbus State Community College, will succeed Cynthia Dungey at ODJFS. Hall was deputy chief counsel to the state’s education agency for nearly six years between 2004 and 2010, and then served in the same role for DeWine when was the state’s attorney genera.

Tennessee Department of Children’s Services: Gov.-Elect Bill Lee (R) has tapped a top state prosecutor to lead the child welfare agency. Jennifer Nichols is the chief homicide prosecutor for Shelby County, which includes Memphis. Nichols has in the past led the county’s special victims unit, which prosecutes criminal cases stemming from child deaths and child abuse.

Wisconsin Department of Children and Families: Gov. Tony Evers (D), who was the secretary for the state’s education department, has tapped his chief of staff from that office to lead child welfare. Emilie Amundson worked her way up the chain of command at the Department of Public Instruction for nearly 12 years, and before that served as an English teacher in Wisconsin and New York City.

Wyoming Department of Family Services (DFS): Gov. Mark Gordon (R) announced that Mike Ceballos will lead the Wyoming Department of Health after current director Tom Forslund retires in the coming weeks. Two years ago, Forslund was named director of both the Department of Health and the Department of Family Services by former Governor Matt Mead. Prior to that, the departments had operated separately with Steve Corsi leading DFS for six years before he left to head Missouri’s Department of Social Services. Gordon said he’s considering separating the two departments again and has not yet named who would head DFS if he chooses to do that.

Kim Hansel contributed to this article.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.