“Every child deserves a family,” begins President Donald Trump’s executive order last June on “Strengthening the Child Welfare System for America’s Children.” 

The Trump administration made foster children a priority, working with state and local groups to place children in loving homes more quickly and to ensure that fewer children are entering the system to begin with. 

Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary at the Administration for Children and Families, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, joins the show to discuss how that executive order last summer has improved the foster care system and why it’s so important for the incoming Biden administration to continue to make vulnerable children a priority. 

We also read your letters to the editor and share a “good news story” about a young woman who found a way to use horses to inspire a love of reading in students. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript. 

Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to be joined by Lynn Johnson, the assistant secretary at the Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. Assistant Secretary Johnson, welcome to the show.

Lynn Johnson: Thank you so much for having me. It’s quite an honor.

Allen: Child welfare is an issue that’s very close to my heart, so I’m very excited for our conversation today. Let’s go back to June when President [Donald] Trump signed the Executive Order on Strengthening the Child Welfare System for America’s Children. The first line of that order reads, “Every child deserves a family,” and that is certainly the truth. Could you just explain the purpose of that order broadly?

Johnson: Absolutely. And it is such an honor to be able to work for an administration that sees the faces of children and the problems that have resulted from some of our systems. 

So that when you hear the first line of that order that says, “Every child deserves a family,” that is so heartfelt and it is so critical that we remember that whether it’s a family that is adopting, whether it’s a family that is guardianship or some type of permanency, it matters to those young adults, and we know that because we asked them. The kids, the young adults themselves have talked to us about their experiences in the system.

So President Trump’s executive order was the culmination of months and months of collaborative work that was sparked by the “All-In Foster Adoption” campaign, which we started. 

And that was an initiative to mobilize community partners, states, and the federal government to reduce the numbers of kids waiting to be adopted in our child welfare system from 125,000 to zero.

What we found was talking to the young adults, some kids were in the system for 20 years, some for 15. Some had 80 movements, some had two. And there was no consistency in the way that we were moving children to success, to be thriving adults. 

And so we put together the All-In Adoption campaign to help move the country because these children don’t want to have their opportunities for permanency to change every time there’s a new governor or a new president.

So we put together a campaign that was driven by both Democratic and Republican governors, by child welfare systems, by nonprofits, and especially by our faith-based groups, and they have helped kids waiting for adoption to be adopted. 

The executive order added to that by increasing partnerships which said we need to increase resources for our foster parents and children. We need to increase transparency and accountability for our child welfare agencies.

These priorities illustrate this administration’s commitment to vulnerable children as we continue to use all the resources available to make sure that all children benefit from having a forever family. 

And by adding the increasing of partnerships, we know that there are now, today, since the executive order, we went from 125,000 children in youth to 122,000 children in youth who are waiting, and we know that there are 10 times that number of churches and nonprofits throughout this country. 

And if just one family from each of those faith-based groups steps up and says, “I want to give somebody a forever home,” and those churches and nonprofits wrap around that family, we could be to zero in six months.

So that was the intent. This is a president that’s all about action, and that was his intent, was that the sooner these kids have a forever home, the better off they’re going to be.

Allen: Yeah. Well, and that, I think, is so the truth, that there is such a critical foundation for any child to have that family base, to have the love of a family. So I think that’s so strategic to think in terms of how can we partner with those across the country who are already doing this work and how can we mobilize individuals who want to be involved to really help these kids?

If you would, just give us a little bit of background on who these kids are who are in the foster care system, who are waiting to be adopted, kind of the makeup of their ages, ethnicity, and then why so many of them have found themselves in the system.

Johnson: So, the best data that I have now, obviously, is 2019. We’ll have the 2020 data in about a couple months. But there were 423,000 children in the foster care system, of which 122,000 of those kids are waiting to be adopted. 

Now, of the 122,000, each year, approximately 20,000 young adults age out of our system, meaning they leave the system without any family, without any home to go to, and have to make it on their own. Depending on the state, they could be 18-year-olds and some can be 21-year-olds. 

And since the pandemic, governors have extended their care, because so many kids were ending up homeless, to 24, 25, and 26 years old.

The ages that we have in foster care range from babies. Median age is about 8 years old. And the vast majority of children in foster care are actually placed with a foster family. About 32% are placed with a relative, 46% with a non-relative.

The vast majority of children and youth in foster care are Caucasian at 44%, African American at 23% and Hispanic at 21%.

And so that gives you a little bit about the demographics, but there are many, many reasons why children and youth enter foster care. 

One of the biggest pieces that I find is based on the definition of neglect, the consequences of poverty, that children, about 63%, are removed from their home because their parents may be poor, maybe the consequences of poverty where the parents can no longer take care of the children, but it’s not abuse. 

There could be substance abuse. There could be mental health. There could be homelessness. There could be unemployment.

II knew one young man who … was put into our system because his family could not afford a mattress. And I kept thinking about the cost of the foster care system versus the cost of buying a mattress and just wondered what the rules and the laws are that push to move a child because he didn’t have a mattress to sleep on. 

And he ended up in the foster care system for a long time, just because once you get in, it’s really hard, I think, to get out.

So those are the kinds of things that bring children in. 

What we’ve been doing under the Trump administration is working hard to strengthen the family on the front end, having communities help their communities, getting government out of the way, bringing in those faith-based supports so that they can wrap around a family before we get a call about abuse or neglect, before the family ends up homeless. 

If there’s a problem where dad, and right now, this is an issue around the country, dad lost a job or mom lost their job, and they shouldn’t lose their children too.

So could we wrap around that home to help them get a new job, to help them not lose their home, to help them with the mental health of depression based on the fear of unemployment or substance abuse? As we know, all of that has gone up during this pandemic.

We think if communities step up, faith-based groups step up and wrap around those families, we could really significantly reduce the number of children that come into our care, and the children will be better off because they won’t be traumatized by frequent moves.

That was our No. 1 thing that we did in this administration, was strengthening families on the front end prior to coming into the system. 

Based on that, for the first time—I’ve been doing this for over 30-some years—we have actually seen the numbers go in the right direction, less kids safely staying in their homes with community supports. And that is huge. It is such a positive response to taking care of children.

The other thing that happened was, as we were taking care of families on the front end, someone asked me the question about, “Why are you only taking care of the kids on the front end?” 

Which we weren’t, but that was the question, “What about those kids that are already in the system?” And that’s that 125,000 number that is now 122,000 of waiting kids. 

And that’s when we decided to do the “All-In Challenge” while strengthening the families, reunifying families, because we’re strengthening them, and then making sure those that are waiting, that no matter what, the parental rights were already terminated and they have an adoption plan, they are waiting for a forever home. 

We put the focus on those kids. And I’m a firm believer that that what you focus on and that which you measure gets done.

So I talked to all governors around the country and governors’ offices and asked them if they would be all-in for these kids, and nobody has said no, which is a wonderful thing to know that the entire country, I talked to hundreds and hundreds of churches, hundreds and hundreds of nonprofits, and they all are all-in to take care of these kids.

We get our data, it’s called AFCARS [Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System]. First time I’ve ever seen more kids have been adopted, less kids are waiting, and less kids have been put into the system because we strengthened their families. So that gives you a little bit about the demographics and the reason that these kids are coming into care.

We always know there will be a need for foster care because there are just some people who cannot parent, but we shouldn’t take children from parents to punish them because of challenges in their lives. So I hope that helps.

Allen: No, that does. Thank you. That is so helpful and just really encouraging to hear about the work that you all are doing and how strategically you’re doing it.

We are talking with Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson of the Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families.

Just discussing another aspect of this order, assistant secretary, the order specifically references faith-based adoption and foster agencies and making sure that those groups have the resources that they need to serve the children in need in their communities. 

For years, we have seen that faith-based agencies have come under attack for not being willing to compromise on their view of marriage. Catholic Charities of Boston, for example, no longer offers adoption services because they weren’t willing to compromise on their beliefs about marriage.

So how does this order seek to strengthen and has strengthened faith-based agencies to ensure that they’re going to be able to keep serving children in need while also living by the convictions that they do hold?

Johnson: So, as you may be aware, this administration has been very strong on promoting the rights of religious institutions, specifically through the religious liberty, through legal avenues, and also by enforcing laws that were already on the books 10, 20 years ago, but weren’t being enforced.

What we’ve said in this administration and under the Administration for Children and Families is that all children deserve a family, all children need someone. 

That means I need all churches, synagogues, nonprofits, secular groups, everybody to be available so that a match between a child and a family is a good fit. 

And to cut out, as I said earlier today, the number of churches that are available to find families who want to love a child, it just doesn’t make sense.

And so we have said we need everybody to be helping get kids into forever homes in a positive, safe way. And so that’s what we’ve been doing. We have been trying to help all of the nonprofits and churches step up and get the resources from their states. 

Some states obviously are more willing to move forward with work with nonprofits that are faith-based or faith-based groups and some are not. 

But what we are seeing is that those that are working with churches, those that are working with faith-based groups, their numbers are better. They are getting more children into forever homes. They are protecting those kids in a much bigger way, and the churches are stepping up to wrap around those families.

Everybody is not able to adopt or willing to adopt or capable of adopting a challenged child, a sibling set, an older teen, and we found that if the churches wrap around the families that are willing to do that, you have a much more successful transition.

So that’s my firm belief as we ran the Administration for Children and Families, that everybody in this country has a role for taking care of these children. These are everybody’s responsibility, not just government’s. In fact, it can’t be just government’s, and … nonprofits and faith groups are absolutely critical to making this happen.

Allen: That’s encouraging. Since the Executive Order on Strengthening the Child Welfare System for America’s Children was first signed in the summer of 2020, what have some of those outcomes been that you have been really encouraged to see?

Johnson: That is such a great question. And as you know, it was just signed six months ago in the middle of COVID. But I will tell you some anecdotal information because we don’t have the data collected yet. 

As I traveled around the country talking to governors, I saw in some states, as courts would close down and hearings weren’t happening, that we were able to use the executive order to say, “We can’t stop doing adoption hearings because of COVID,” and they went to virtual.

And in Arizona, for example, they did, starting from COVID, March, over the next several months, 3,000 adoptions, which is almost unheard of, and 1,800 reunifications with families. And the families are strong and are being supported. 

Those 4,800 kids, amazing that during COVID, during the time when everybody was in a panic, they were getting their forever homes. They were getting their mom and dad.

And we’ve found that of these numbers that we talk about, about 30% of those kids are sitting in the home that wants to adopt them before their court hearing. 

So if we could just get those court hearings, finish the paperwork, handle appeals, take care of the legal issues, we’d have 30% less kids waiting. You’d have 30% less kids in government. 

You are talking a reduction in the bureaucracy, a reduction in paperwork, and an ability for caseworkers to have more time to spend with the kids that are in foster care.

So I think one of the biggest things we need to remember is this executive order, as emotional as it might be because it’s the right thing for thriving kids, also impacts the economic ability of a state. It makes sure that the state can fund what they need to fund. 

So if we look at reducing the number of kids coming in, helping the waiting kids get forever homes, in six to 12 months, if we really focus on this, we could have a child welfare system maybe half its size or even three-quarters its size would be good. 

That money is a block grant that can be reinvested to protect and care for those really, really vulnerable kids who have seriously been abused. And that would be a huge, huge win to the system, … reducing the need for the government intervention and [moving] forward with communities doing the right thing for these kids.

Allen: Oh, I think it’s so encouraging that you all have been able to move forward amid the pandemic, but this has been a priority for this administration to continue to say, “Just because there’s a global pandemic, that doesn’t mean that there are kids that don’t still need families, that don’t still need that support. If anything, even more important in this season.”

Now, one of the aims of the executive order is, of course, to try to keep siblings together who enter the system. Do you have any information on how successful that objective has been over the past several months?

Johnson: Again, this would be anecdotal because we haven’t collected the data yet, but I just last week was in Tennessee, actually, just a couple of days ago, and met with a family who had adopted six siblings.

Allen: Wow.

Johnson: And then they had a couple of their own kids. So they had a child in every age starting from third grade. 

The kids came and met with me and they were sharing how they never expected, one, to be allowed to stay together, and two, to get adopted. They thought they’d have foster care, but they didn’t think they’d be adopted.

We are hearing that this effort to take kids into the home and keep those siblings together is becoming more and more a priority for the states and a bigger effort to try to make that happen. 

And again, what these foster parents, now adoptive parents, said to us was, “Once you have three kids, six makes no more difference other than you need a bigger car and a bigger kitchen table.” And that really made sense to me. 

But they were so candid as far as, “We said no at first. Six was overwhelming. And then they came into the home and we realized this is so doable.”

I think that’s the word that we need to get out to people, is we can keep siblings together and we absolutely should. 

I hired a young man who spent two decades in the foster care system. He was the baby of many children and he’s the only one that didn’t get adopted, which is unusual because usually people want the babies. But all of his siblings were adopted out separately. 

And he said to this day, he will never forget that. He will never forget that he doesn’t have connections with some of his siblings. He will never have that understanding of his biological family and that it was really hard for him.

In fact, he just got adopted at age 23, as an adult. And he said, “I was 5 years old in the system and no one was focusing on getting me a forever home. I was 10, I was 15, I was 18. And then they said, ‘Oh, well, you’re going to age out. Do you want us to find you a forever home?'” 

He said, “If nobody wanted me all those years, why would I want one now?” And then he ends up getting adopted at age 23.

But keeping those siblings together, I think of the moves he had, the assaults he went through, the troubles that he had, and then think if we had focused on siblings, if we had had faith groups wrapping around families, would his entire journey have been different? 

I think the answer is yes. I think he would say yes. 

I mean, he says he’s blessed now. He has a great mom and dad and he’s 23 and good things are happening, but what his journey was, the trauma of that could have been prevented. And that’s where pushing to keep siblings together is absolutely a priority and it is a priority for this administration.

The good news is we have talked to both parties about this work that we’re doing and we are really encouraging people to keep this going. 

We don’t want this to be something that, “Well, that was that administration, so now let’s stop,” because we have true momentum. We have momentum with churches, we have momentum with nonprofits, and we have momentum with people in communities. And this is not a political thing. This is about America’s kids and we need to keep this going.

Allen: So how does it continue? What are the next steps? Looking at 2021, what needs to continue to happen this year in order to ensure that more and more children are being placed in forever homes and even fewer children are entering the system to begin with?

Johnson: We have talked to the governors about keeping it going in their states. I have talked to the president-elect’s transition team about the successes of this and the fact that it is nonpartisan and that these children need us to step above partisanship in taking care of these children. 

So I’m hoping that’ll happen. No guarantees because every transition is different, but we know that America’s children have been given a voice. These kids, we have kids in every single state that are talking to governors and we have young adults who have been at the federal level.

I hope their voice continues to be heard. I hope every one of them finds that forever home. And I hope this continues forever until we don’t have waiting kids because there is no reason to have waiting kids. 

And we can do this, but we do have to keep focusing on it and we do have to measure it. And there’s no excuse. We can get to zero. I know it, the country knows it, and these kids absolutely know it. So we need to do this.

Allen: Yeah. For anyone who’s listening and thinking, “You know, maybe I should consider being a foster parent or maybe even consider adopting,” how could they start that process?

Johnson: It’s a great question. It’s one that I have to laugh [at] because I’m thinking about it myself and saying, “So when I return back to Colorado, what do I do and how do I open up my home so that I can have these kids have a place to lay their heads?” And my husband and I have been talking about it.

So my first thing is I would encourage them to visit the Administration for Children and Families webpage on childwelfare.gov. There are links to more information on the webpage and you can Google the assistant secretary’s All-In Foster Adoption campaign.

The other thing that individuals can do, depending on which state they are in, is contact the child welfare adoption department in their own state. 

If they can’t find it, they can contact their governors’ offices—every governor’s office has a policy person that works on these issues—and just start the process. Or get ahold of a church that’s working on adoption, get ahold of a nonprofit and just start the process.

It is so hard to ask the kids to wait when we, as adults, could take the risk to open up the love in our own hearts. And every adoptive parent that I have talked to said this didn’t change the child’s life nearly as much as it changed theirs.

And so I do encourage people to check it out. And if you can’t adopt, if you can’t foster, then help somebody who is. 

Help them mow their lawn, bring meals over, help kids go to sports, help with homework, whatever that family needs, because it will make a difference and it will make our country stronger because we are keeping our kids healthy. I hope this helps.

Allen: Oh, thank you so much. Assistant Secretary Johnson, it is a pleasure talking with you today. We truly, truly appreciate you coming on the show.

Johnson: Thank you so much. I am hoping your listeners are as excited as me to go see what we can do to find these kids because they are fantastic and they’re super fun.

Allen: Absolutely. Thank you so much.