On Wednesday, February 9, 2022, the Senate Finance Committee considered the nominations to fill two critical positions at the Department of Health and Humans Services: the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and the Administration on Children Youth and Families (ACYF). Rebecca Jones-Gaston was nominated by President Biden for the ACYF position on November 18, 2021. January Contreras was nominated for the ACF position on December 8, 2021. Both positions are critical to child welfare services with the ACF position overseeing a range of programs including aging programs, child care, TANF, and refugee assistance in addition to child welfare programs. The ACYF position is directly over the Children’s Bureau and the Family and Youth Services Bureau.
Jones-Gaston is the Child Welfare Director for the State of Oregon’s Department of Human Services. Before being the Director in Oregon, Gaston served as the Executive Director of the Maryland Department of Human Services’ Social Services Administration with oversight of child welfare and adult services. She has worked in the field of human services for nearly 25 years as a social worker, advocate, therapist, consultant, and administrator. She knows child welfare first hand as she was adopted from foster care.
January Contreras, from Arizona, is a former county prosecutor and assistant attorney general. She previously served in the Obama Administration as Ombudsman for Citizenship and Immigration Services at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and on the White House Council on Women and Girls. Contreras oversaw the Arizona Department of Health Services after serving as Assistant Director of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, Arizona’s Medicaid agency.
In his opening remarks, Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) emphasized the importance of the Family First Act implementation by both ACF and ACYF.
In her opening remarks, Jones-Gaston she said her priorities were to: shifting the focus of child welfare systems from placement to prevention by promoting the cross-system partnerships and shared outcomes and helping states implement the Family First Prevention Services Act; leading from the ground up by keeping the perspective of states and those with lived experience at the fore; and ensuring equity and inclusion are at the center of all that we do.
She outlined her work in both Oregon and Maryland to implement the Family First Act and said that she would prioritize supporting states to fully implement the law. She also emphasized that changing children and family services systems into family wellbeing systems and that that cannot be done without a focus on equity and inclusion.
Wyden emphasized recent reductions in the foster care numbers in his home state of Oregon. He said he would like to see a surge in implementation of the Family First Act and not just progress. Jones-Gaston emphasized working across the programs and listening to states in the implementation. Wyden also brought up Families First Act with Contreras but also focused on racial equity issues.
In his questions, Ranking Member Mike Crapo (R-ID) asked about how Jones-Gaston would work together with faith-based organizations. She responded by talking about her past work with faith-based agencies emphasizing the important role they play. Other senators expressed a range of concerns through their question with many concerns focused on child welfare issues.
Senator Catherine Cortez-Matos (D-NV) asked about the child protective services workforce and how to address the trauma they are experiencing. Jones-Gaston said she would look for partners across agencies and Congress to determine ways to strengthen the workforce.
Senator Michael Bennet focused on the Family First Clearinghouse and the need to move the process forward. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) wanted to know about how to implement the Family First Act while maintaining the well-being and safety of children. His other question focused on the need to recruit more foster parents, noting that many have dropped-out of providing care. Gaston-Jones responded by talking about her past strategies to work with foster parent organizations and to find more partners who can support these parents. Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) asked about maintaining child safety and not allowing children within the child welfare system from falling between the cracks.
Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) focused on the issue of QRTPs within Family First Act and the confusion within his home state of Ohio. Jones-Gaston said the issue is complex but pledged to work across departments including CMS and offered her commitment to work with states and CMS and try and get clarity on the issue. He also asked Contreras about equity issues and how to address that particularly since the Committee will need to reauthorize IV-B programs. She said that we needed to collect better data, more help for states and that we also needed to have greater diversity within the workforce.
Other areas of concern for the three nominees included questions on the reauthorization of the home visiting program, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) focused on one of her big priorities, child care. Senator Hassan also raised questions about child care and her concerns about how to help children with disabilities, particularly during this pandemic. Senator John Thune (R-SD) raised a question on the need to work with Tribal communities and nations. There were also some limited numbers of questions about the refugee assistant program.
The Committee also considered the nomination of Robert Gordon for Assistant Secretary of Financial Services.
All three positions must be approved by the Senate starting with the Finance Committee. Chairman Wyden gave Committee members until COB Friday February 11, to submit questions. Presumably the Committee will wait for answers and if nominees get at least half the Committee support they can go to the floor. There appeared to be a bipartisan spirit during the hearing for members that attended. There is always the potential for a Senator to hold up votes on the floor to make a point on a controversial issue (immigration and refugees).