News & Perspectives

Federal Leadership -- It Does Matter

More and more, leadership is talked about and addressed through issues such as appointment, training, and mentoring.  Leadership is particularly important and timely when considering child protection and child welfare issues over the last several years. Every election cycle is an opportunity for a local jurisdiction or state to be confronted with the challenges of appointing new leadership. Conflict or controversy often cause a change in leadership, which presents additional challenges, given the requirements of addressing an agency or system in crisis. Finally, there is need to address leadership transition upon retirement, or the decision to leave after a limited time in office. The need for stability and length of leadership is more important than ever to ensure continuity of progress and strength of improvement.

The importance of strong federal leadership – Understanding organizational structure and critical services

One aspect of leadership often not addressed by those working at the local or state level is the need for strong federal leadership for the positions of Undersecretary of Health and Human Services and Commissioner/Assistant Commissioner of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and the Administration for Children Youth and Families (ACYF), to name a few.   These positions are often transitional and change after a presidential election. What is not fully understood, or perhaps appreciated, is the importance of these positions as they ultimately impact policy, practice, and funding available from the federal government to a local jurisdiction and state.

The organizational structure begins with the ACF, which has as its mission that it provides “national leadership and creates opportunities for families to lead economically and socially productive lives.”  Some of ACF’s major responsibilities include the Office of Child Care (OCC), Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), Office of Family Assistance (OFA), Office of Head Start (OHS), Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), Social Services Block Grant Program (SSBG), The Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood (HMRF), Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), and Administration for Native Americans (ANA). The budget is approximately $53 billion – 38 percent is TANF, 15 percent is foster care and permanency, 17 percent is head start, 8 percent is child support, and 11 percent is child care, along with an additional 11 percent in other programs.

The ACYF is divided into two bureaus - the Children’s Bureau (CB) and the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB):

  • CB has responsibility for the federal programs such as Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), Children and Family Service Review (CFSR), National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD), Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System (CCWIS -- formerly known as State Automated Child Welfare Information System, or SACWIS), and Title IV-E Reviews.  

  • FYSB has responsibility for federal programs and services regarding youth homelessness, adolescent pregnancy, domestic violence, crisis hotlines, and human trafficking.

These programs and others provide vital services for state and local entities. Funding in many levels, especially since the recession of 2008, has been stable in some jurisdictions, but in many jurisdictions, funding has been fluctuating and critically reduced. Therefore, any funding from the federal level is even more important than before. It is not, however, the funding that the federal government provides as its most important service, it is, rather, leadership and initiative.
Through its reviews of programs such as Title IV-E, CFSR, and CCWIS, the federal government provides critical opportunities for analysis, review, comparison, and improvement of important information and services to children, youth, and families. Through its technical assistance and training programs, it provides the opportunity for experts to provide advice and consultation to agencies in need of improvement. Through its grants and technical bulletins, it provides opportunities to improve services and compliance with funding provided at all levels.

Agencies at every level must be aware and understand the ever-changing philosophical, programmatic, and operational aspects of child protection services; they must have the opportunity to communicate with other agencies, improve services and care for children and families, and explore and implement promising and evidence-based practices; ultimately, they must be held accountable for the improvement demanded by stakeholders. That requires leadership at every level, but primarily it demands leadership at the highest level so that the diverse and often isolated systems are advised of the opportunities available.

Some examples of the changing nature of child protection services needing federal leadership, support, coordination, and funding include: the recent demand for accountability through evidence-based and promising practices -- the tragically exclusive expansion of the opioid crisis, the increasing challenges of caseworker turnover, and the adjustments necessary when funding shortages occur. Many local and state jurisdictions struggle with each of these at various times, while some have learned to adapt and adjust.

Need for federal leadership appointments 

Subsequently, leadership at the federal level is increasingly needed. Given the recent election, the need for leadership appointments at the Undersecretary, Commissioner, and Associate Commissioner levels are even more critical. Everyone involved at the state and local level should communicate with their senator or congressperson to encourage rapid approval of appointments of these important positions. While those in acting roles provide a valuable service, it essentially is a holding pattern until permanent appointments and approval are concluded.