Trump’s Top Child Welfare Official Speaks

CREDIT: Administration for Children and Families
Jerry Milner is the Acting Commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families.

In June, the Trump administration hired Jerry Milner to lead the federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that oversees federal child welfare funding and policy.

The Administration for Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) was established in 1977 and oversees the Family and Youth Services Bureau as well as the much larger Children’s Bureau, which was created by President William Howard Taft back in 1912. As acting commissioner of ACYF, Milner oversees a budget of $9.7 billion and a staff of 200, giving him the power to significantly influence national child welfare policy.

Prior to his current role, Milner ran Alabama’s foster care system, and then joined the   Children’s Bureau. There, he helped design the Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) process, a periodic review of state child welfare systems conducted by ACYF.

Milner also served as a vice president at a consulting firm called the Center for the Support of Families, where he presided over child welfare practice. Among his projects there was a 2016 report, where he and his team found that New Hampshire’s child welfare system was not adequately investigating reports of abuse and neglect in part due to a “seriously overloaded workforce.” These are some of the very issues he will have to grapple with in his new role, but on a much larger scale.

Following up an in person meeting in Washington, D.C. this fall, Milner agreed to provide written responses to a series of follow-up questions. In those responses Milner remarked on a range of issues including maltreatment prevention, federal finance reform and the future of the CFSR process.

When we met, you discussed the five key messages or pillars that you want to work toward during your time at ACFY. What are those?

We are very interested in changing our current system so that it strengthens the resiliency of families as our primary intervention and gives children what they need to thrive.

Right now, we typically respond only after families have lost much of their protective capacity and children have been harmed. We need to strive to create environments where they get the support they need before the harm occurs, which, in my mind, calls for a reconceptualization of the mission and functioning of child welfare systems. Tweaking what we already have in place won’t solve the problems.

While certainly not an exhaustive list, there are some priorities that are central in moving toward a system that truly strengthens families.

First, we need to change the focus of child welfare to primary prevention of maltreatment and unnecessary removal of children from their families. We can only break the cycle of family disruption and maltreatment by addressing the root causes of those situations.

Second, we should prioritize the importance of families by ensuring that when foster care is necessary, it operates as a support for the family rather than a substitute for the parent. The integrity of the parent-child bond is essential to healthy child development. Whenever it’s possible and safe, the foster care system should support that bond by engaging birth parents to remain a vital part of their children’s care and routines even while in foster care.

Third, we must focus our interventions on the overall well-being of children and their parents by changing our core practices, especially around removal and placement. We know that removal of a child from a family is traumatic. Trauma is very hard to undo and presents lifelong challenges. We should consciously avoid inflicting psychological and emotional damage to children in our efforts to achieve physical safety. We can help to do that by providing services to help families stay together whenever possible; keeping children in their communities if removal is necessary, ideally within their extended families; protecting the integrity of the parent-child relationship whenever possible; and normalizing their experience in foster care as much as possible.

Fourth, to be effective in supporting children and families, communities need the strength of a broad base of collaborative efforts among the entities that touch their families’ lives.

Finally, to achieve better outcomes, we must have a healthy and stable child welfare workforce. This is very difficult work, we need to make sure the workforce is skilled, supported, and committed to making families stronger through preventive interventions and not only when maltreatment has occurred.

Taken together, I believe these efforts will help reshape our system from one that is reactive and geared toward picking up the pieces after bad things happen to one that is supportive, accessible and provides children and families the services they need to remain healthy and strong.

In regards to primary prevention, what kind of programs and initiatives would you like to see the child welfare system focused on?

We need a range of support services that help to strengthen parents’ protective capacities; for example, parenting education and support, community-based substance abuse prevention and treatment services, ready access to needed medical and mental health services and trauma-informed services to help parents heal from their adverse experiences.

One of the keys to providing services is to ensure that they are flexible and can be tailored to the needs of individual children and families so that we can get at the root causes of the need for child welfare intervention.

Our current funding structure does not necessarily support such flexibility and changes are needed in order to build responsive prevention systems.

What is the role of systems other than child welfare in the child maltreatment prevention push?

Other systems play a tremendous role in preventing child maltreatment — they are absolutely critical. Prevention requires a vigorous, highly integrated, multi-systemic approach involving all who work with children and families. Prevention cannot be accomplished by the child welfare system alone; the issues children and families are facing are just too complex.

The best examples I’ve seen of community-based prevention services have been the result of strong partnerships among child welfare, the courts and a host of other systems, along with a commitment of all stakeholders to community-based services. No single group or organization can be effective alone in creating healthy, thriving communities, but together with a clear vision and strong leadership, it is possible.

Our challenge and opportunities lie in working across systems, be that the medical system, the mental health and substance abuse treatment provider systems, our schools, law enforcement, community organizations and all other stakeholders that come in contact with vulnerable families and providing them the support they need to stay healthy and strong.

How would you suggest the child welfare system re-orient its financing structure to allow for primary prevention? What changes do you think would improve the structure of federal child welfare financing?

Under the current funding system, the bulk of federal funding is available to support the costs associated with foster care. This means most of the funding goes to support children who have been maltreated and removed from their parents. We think that is too late. Research tells us that many removals could likely be prevented if warning signs were detected earlier and effective services provided.

States need the flexibility to use federal funds to help families sooner, before serious danger arises or harm occurs. Access to effective prevention services can help keep families together, and flexibility is the key that will allow communities to respond most effectively to their unique needs.

What are your thoughts on the role of predictive analytics for both child maltreatment prevention and responding to reports of child maltreatment?

I think we have only begun to understand the potential for analytics to support and inform our work.

Some states are using analytics to assist in safety and risk assessment and in identifying reports that warrant action. Others are using analytics at a higher, community level to understand the associations among various factors and the incidence of child maltreatment.

Having the capacity to share data across agencies and programs is an essential component to the effective use of analytics, and is often perceived as a barrier although it is happening in some jurisdictions.

I believe we should continue to support and develop our capacity to collect and use data in ways that will lead to improved outcomes for children and families.

You mentioned the importance of expanding community-based approaches to child welfare. What do you mean by that and what ideas do you have there?

We need community-based, collaborative services to support healthy and thriving families. This means that improvement efforts are more likely to succeed if they are locally-based and community-driven because that is where families live.

This is particularly important in a prevention environment. Even if foster care is necessary for a child, we know that the opportunities to keep critical relationships intact are greater when children are placed in the communities where they live.

A community-based approach requires a few things. It’s important to understand what life is like for families in their specific communities. What are they struggling with? What resources are available? Are there cultural practices or norms that are unique?

These are all things that are known at the local level and can make a key difference in the effectiveness of interventions. The aim is to become a system to which people turn for help, not seek to avoid.

There’s also good reason to believe that if services were offered in more accessible, less threatening ways, by people and in places that may be familiar, such as through the auspices of a community center or a church, parents may be more likely to seek help on their own and benefit from the supports available to them.

What are the most pressing workforce issues in child welfare, and what would you do to alleviate the secondary trauma and burnout so often associated with the child welfare workforce?

The workforce issues are not new. The inability to recruit staff effectively in some areas of the country, high caseloads, inadequate training, inadequate support for staff, a need for ongoing skill development to improve practice, and stressful work that often inflicts secondary trauma on social workers all contribute to challenges in recruitment, retention and the quality of work with children and families.

There are many ways to support child welfare staff who are constantly exposed to the traumatic nature of the work. Examples include ensuring that supervision and mentoring recognize and respond when social workers are affected by their experiences, building in-house peer supports for staff, understanding and providing for a healthy work-life balance, and decision-making processes that take life-and-death decisions off the shoulders of a single worker.

As a social worker, I believe that child welfare staff want to do good work and oftentimes know what needs to happen to be effective. Unfortunately, organizational cultures and the lack of supports are often barriers.

Effective and inspirational leadership in child welfare is central to supporting the workforce, through establishing a clear vision, a supportive environment, and an organizational culture that values keeping families together. Behind every successful child welfare program, there are leaders who have vision, know what needs to happen and how to make it happen, and who can inspire and bring together their own staff with other essential stakeholders to shape effective systems for children and families.

To what degree are opioids a factor in increasing foster care rates?

We are experiencing increases in the number of children in foster care at the same time that there is an increase in the percentage of children entering foster care with a reason related to substance abuse.

However, at the federal level, we cannot make the direct link to opioid use since our data are not specific as to the types of substances being abused. Still, based on the information we hear from states, there is strong reason to believe that opioid abuse is a contributor to some of the increases.

This phenomenon supports the need for greater flexibility in providing prevention services, strong community partnerships, and in data-sharing so that we can both understand and address the problems.

What are our thoughts on the Family First Prevention Services Act? Would you like to see something like it move forward?

We need to be able to reach families further upstream if we are serious about improving outcomes for children and families.

Flexible funding, thoughtfully applied, will allow us to be a proactive rather than reactive system, which is key to preventing maltreatment, and key to strengthening families.

At the same time, we should take care not to impose increased regulation on states’ abilities to make the right decisions for individual children and families and burden them with unnecessary reporting and compliance requirements.

The Chronicle’s research shows that there is a serious shortage of foster beds relative to foster kids. Do you think the federal government should be more engaged in tracking and assisting states with recruitment?

In the long run, I don’t think we will solve the problems in foster care by finding more beds for children to sleep in. We need to resolve the problems that lead to the increased need for foster care placement.

Nonetheless, in the immediate, we understand that states are facing shortages of placement options when children are entering foster care, and we are very supportive of the need for an adequate supply of family-based placement resources.

Through the Children’s Bureau’s network of technical assistance providers, we have and will continue to support states’ efforts regarding diligent recruitment of foster and adoptive families, with an emphasis on looking first within the children’s extended families. We are also placing emphasis on increased diligence in engaging fathers and paternal relatives, which may provide an expanded array of kinship care options for children in placement.

Since the Child and Family Services Review [CFSR] process has been in place, not a single state has come into compliance. Do you see this as a product of misguided thresholds, serious state challenges, or perhaps some of both?

First, all states have achieved some degree of conformity with CFSR standards and have been out of conformity in other areas.

The CFSR was not envisioned to be a pass-fail review, but rather, a review to help states understand their strengths and weaknesses and to guide continuous quality improvement activities. I believe that some states, however, have come to view it as a compliance process, which is disappointing, and I am also disappointed in not seeing dramatic performance improvements in round three of the CFSR so far.

Second, the conformity thresholds for the outcomes and performance indicators in the CFSR are high, as they well should be, given the vulnerable population they are designed to address, so it’s difficult to say the thresholds are misguided.

I think the problems lie in the program improvement planning process that follows the reviews. On the one hand, the federal government tells states they must make major improvements, many of which require new or expanded services, yet we provide relatively little in the way of funding to support the improvements. That needs to change.

The CFSR is a valuable tool in helping to raise the bar for outcomes for children and families, and I am committed to looking at ways in which the process can be more effective in leading to greater improvements.

Finally, have you had much interaction with President Donald Trump or Health and Human Services leadership regarding their goals for the child welfare system?

Pursuit of the goal of strengthening families through primary prevention, strong and responsive communities, collaborative efforts among those organizations and groups whose work affects outcomes in child welfare, and increasing the well-being of children and families are all entirely consistent with the administration’s goals.

The administration places high value on the importance of families, and we believe this is where we should focus our priorities.

If you are interested in reading more about federal juvenile justice and child welfare policy, read our special issue “Kids on the Hill” absolutely free. Just hit this LINK

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Daniel Heimpel, Publisher, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Daniel Heimpel, Publisher, The Chronicle of Social Change 182 Articles
Daniel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at


  1. Thankfully, this will be disruptive to the billion dollar foster care industry!! CPS, DCFS, all these so-called child protection agencies traumatize kids worse than the abuse they may have suffered as a result of bad parenting skills that could be corrected with services and resources, in most cases. CASH FOR KIDS lines the pockets and payrolls of these departments and it should STOP! Our tax dollars fund this madness so I am happy to see progress towards keeping kids with their families instead of snatching them and causing more damage by placing them in foster homes where they are a $$$$ sign and herded like cattle into small rooms with multiple other kids. The system PIMPS these kids as much as the abusers!

  2. What ever happened to Draining the Swamp? Sounds like this new bureaucrat wants to expand this boogdoggle of an agency to levels of federal program fraud even worse than under the Democrats and that’s saying something. CPS not doing its job? Just throw more of your hard-earned money at the problem. Really? What a bunch of hogwash. Abolish the agency and let communities, neighborhoods, and families take care care of our own, as we used to do. Would it be perfect? Of course not. But it would be better than what you bureaucrats have been doing to destroy the American family AND make us pay for the privilege. Go away and get your hands out of our back pockets, already. Those bureaucrat social workers with their hands out for Adoptions and Safe Families Act bonuses need to get into an honest line of work.

  3. CPS over steps it’s bounds take kids from families with no prove of abuse! They get a 2000.00 bonus for removing kids from there homes! Only 4% of cases turned in to state agencies, are actual abuse! Families are split up, putting the family throw a big emotional turmoil! My sons kids were so torn up, just wanted to go home! In the end the case closed with no evidence! These workers knew there was no evidence to start with! The state can get a bonus of 8000.00 if they can adopt children out! Workers will lie to accomplish this in a lot of cases! We need some one that will step in with man power and really investigate this problem!

  4. Why are there no programs in place to help those parents who wrongfully accused get there kids back? And I have my file. Well what cps would let me have. And there are so many lies in it. Right from the start. And the social worker that I have has added her own lies to it. So how can I beat the lies? It’s my boys that are being damaged even more so. It’s them that got ripped out of my home and only two months after the found there dad dead. So I want to know how to I beat the lies. I have tried cooperating with them. But it’s hard to do when your social worker calls you on the phone screaming at you and blaming you when your kids were hurt in the foster home that the social worker put your kids in. A foster home that she needed an interpreter to communicate with the foster parents and yet she still put two English speaking only boys into

  5. child welfare workers are doing jobs that no one else wants to do, they are seeing things that no one else wants to see. I would rather see a child be safe and help a family get where they need to be then to keep a child in an unsafe family while we work to make it safe for them. sometimes caseworkers go into homes that even the police will not go in and do anything about. these workers are overworked and overloaded with paperwork that is unnecessary. they need more time in the field to work with the families and children in the communities. to offer more effective services. this system definitely needs changed and until it is changed on the federal level, the states and the counties can do nothing but continue to sink in the mass of destruction. the drug epidemic is doing nothing but increasing the need for children to enter foster care and there are not enough foster parents. this system is in dire need and we are failing. There is much to be done.

  6. how about checking on how many CPS toke out of homes for dumb azz reasons.Putting children in foster homes that they are more abusive then the real homes.Also turning children against parents and giving them more then the parents can afford. CPS gets funding and then makes the parents pay child support and make the parents go low in living while CPS is getting funding this is double dipping. How about checking CPS and the judges they work all together and have ruling before the court hand in hand They are doing illegal thing and get away with it all

  7. The ASFA pays bonuses for every child adopted out and provides federal funding only if their numbers of adoptions increase from the year before ! This is wrong ! Kids for cash ! Pricetag on every child’s head ! This needs to stop ! Because of this , social workers , GALs and judges have become corrupt and destroyed many families just to bring more funding into their county ! Shame on them !

  8. My son is a loving gentle man raising two boys! He never spanks his boys or yell at them! He has been there since they were born! CPS in Kansas got a false report of abuse! It was proven false. He happen to get a DUI and now they have taken his boys! Raising your children and love them to death is the only important part of live! They take that and you have nothing!

  9. Why not, instead of CPS being on a county level, make it a federal organization? Hold workers to be federal employee standard.
    Enforce laws when dealing with cases. Many laws are broken and rights and thrown out the window, both the children’s and the parents.
    It is a very obvious dysfunction right now. Children are abused and trafficked in foster homes, just as they are in the biological homes.
    Instead of offering funding for foster and adoptions programs, focus solely on prevention and when a child is taken on let’s say a drug accusation to the parent, that parent must submit to a rehab program before the child is removed. Abuse, the parent could enter an anger management program. Drop outs and failure to complete parents could be given last chance at a ‘halfway house’ with their children. Fund parent AND child help centers. Fund ‘temporary relief daycares’. Pay employees well and require federal clearance to work at these organizations.
    Coming from a case against my SO, he had his children taken 2 months after their mother died. In the midst of all the grieving he made a decision to moved based on not having the resources to deal with his grieving, having become the only parent in these children’s lives he had to do what he had to do to keep food on the table. He moved with them, and having no other option, transported these kids in the back of a moving truck. He made the environment as safe and as comfortable as possible. He had direct electronic communication with them at all times. He had also had a half of gram of marijuana in the vehicle, hidden away from the kids. Illegal, yes. Proof of an unfit parent? I think not. Defiantly proof of a parent who needed additional resources.
    Child Protective Services immediately removed the kids from his care, put him on a protective order, and put them in foster care. He hasn’t talked to his children in over 6 months. They lose their mom and then their dad.
    He had never harmed the children, never meant to put them in any danger, simply was just trying to get by and improve their lives with the resources he had.
    False allegations were made against him by a man who was very upset with him for refusing to work for him as this man was known to smuggle drugs from state to state.
    He didn’t want any part in it and had to move onto the next job he could find to get ahead. Now, it was not only to provide for his family, but to get his family back together.
    He went to court to have the protection order removed and it was denied based solely on the allegations, which were never even investigated. Which we can all agree that the decision made by the judge infringes on quite a few constitutional rights.
    The only thing he says the courts talked about at the first few hearings was about the death benefits for the kids from their mom. Harassing him to get the death certificate and give it to them. Instead they could have offered to help him through the process and offered aid to cope with his grief in a productive manner, aided in employment and reuniting him with his children. Now the children have been through a couple different placements, currently with the maternal grandparents, who are also grieving the loss of their daughter. Instead of CPS offering any support for the base reasons for the ‘bad’ decisions made They seem to aim only to terminate his parental rights based of HEARSAY evidence and a miniscule drug charge that they could have offered to help him into a rehab program or mental health services and give him his kids back.
    What is your take, Jerry Milner, on a situation such as this, which more often occurs than abuse, that deems these children for for removal.

  10. Across the country cps workers are removing children that were safe and taken care of isolating them from their family traumatizing them tossing them from place to place putting them in abusive situations and mental hospitals cps needs to be reformed somewhat and investigated further guardian at litems who are suppose to have the best interest of a child doesn’t….if taking a child from a stable home that provided love medical food clothes and placing them with a drug addict with a history of a life time criminal record is in the best interest of a child …really??? Putting a child in a mental hospital and isolating him from his family that he needs and ask for all the time he’s 15 years old is that in the best interest of a child ???? This is happening in many many states and thousands of families

  11. What about restitution or return of children adopted out from parents wrongfully accused & persecuted? What about the longterm affects on families already destroyed by the for-profitt adoption industry?

  12. Stop stealing children! It’s hurting children more than it’s helping! Stop funding foster care and adoption so much. Move those funds to help families fight poverty. Problem solved….

  13. Some communities balk when funds go to social welfare. They have used the federal funding as they see fit at the state and local level. Some funding I suspect goes to the States fixed cost programs for pensions and benefits. Foster care is a program of last resort and has had disastrous consequences for children. Corruption is a part of the process at the community level and needs to be weeded out if initiatives are to be successful.

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