Interview with Lynn Johnson and Todd Lamphere



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What led you into public service?

Lynn Johnson: I would have to say at first, I didn’t know there was any other thing. My family really encouraged public service all while I grew up. Then when I moved into my career, I started as a probation and parole officer. My first job was in a prison, then I went to parole, and then federal probation and parole. As I served for 18 years in different capacities, working with very difficult individuals who had walked out of prison never wanting to go back again. I saw that if our systems and our services worked better together, we could have many less individuals in our prison system, in our homeless system, and in our mental health systems. That really drove me to make changes and move into the human service system.


How is HHS (Health and Human Services) and an ACF (The Administration for Children and Families) in particular bringing all partners to the table including faith-based organizations and houses of worship, to address the challenges that face our community?

Lynn Johnson: I believe the biggest challenges that we have in our community have to do with ‘Apathy’. The belief that we have to accept the way things are. The lack of critical thinking and the lack of tolerance, materialism, lack of commitment and communication. Cell phones and video games don’t help with relationship building that helps tremendously in building stronger families. So, I think those are some of the basic issues that we deal with—the isolation and the lack of social skills. But then that moves into the issues around poverty, hunger, violence, abuse and neglect, isolation of seniors.

All of those issues come from the root of what I originally said. So, HHS and ACF are so fortunate to have leadership and President Trump to move to action to do things that will truly make a difference. So, that communities can conserve communities, so that neighbors can help neighbors—people can help people. We are working to integrate all of our services, so that an individual doesn’t have to go to ten different meetings but maybe just one or two in order to get the help that they need.

It should not take a month to get food on your table when you’re starving. So, we are working on that integration. We’re also bringing other agencies HUD (Housing and Urban Development), CDC (Center for Disease Control), SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) to the table and working with them. We’re all doing this and integrating with the Department of Education in every way we can. So, that we can better serve the customers, the people, the vulnerable people that we need to serve bigger and better. Faith-based agencies are so important in providing that piece of hope and being there when the government is done in showing the joy we need to have for people to be successful. Dignity and respect come from that.

So, if government, corporations, nonprofits, churches, people of faith all wraparound a person and say, “You are fantastic”, they will be successful. That’s what we’re hoping to do.

How do you see the potential for the CityServe model, that is not only reaching out to the community through the local church, but is also galvanizing both the faith-based in government agencies to bring solutions?

Todd Lamphere: What we saw in Bakersfield, in Kern County with CityServe, was almost beyond words to actually see the faith-based community working alongside the governmental agencies, for the sole purpose of doing what Secretary Johnson wants to do. That is to help families keep families together as opposed to them being torn apart. City service is truly in Bakersfield and in Kern County. I believe they are the model for America.

Lynn Johnson: I completely agree with Todd and it was overwhelming to see the wonderful movement that the city, county, government, faith-based, nonprofits have that are serving the vulnerable. Now they are moving towards success and doing it together. There was no turf fighting that I could see. Everywhere we went, people were working together to help the other person be successful and more. That warms your heart, when you sit in a seat like mine, people bring you all of the pores and the problems that are going on in the country.

When you go to someplace like what we just saw in Kern County and Bakersfield, it was heartwarming but it also gives hope to those of us in government to know it can be done and we should do this everywhere. If we all would put aside our differences and do what Bakersfield is doing in Kern County, we could change how human services is done in America.


Dave: I want us to talk for a moment about what’s at stake, whether we’re involved or if we choose not to be involved in partnering with government at the federal, state and local levels. I served as Washington DC for over a decade. I worked closely with first the Clinton administration charitable choice and then President Bush with the faith-based and community initiatives, served on the SAMHSA Commission for four years. I learned a lot about how faith-based organizations and community-based can qualify for the public funds.

It’s heartbreaking to see great Christian evangelical charities not competing. They’re afraid of losing their 501(C)3 nonprofit status. They’re afraid of government intrusion. Ronald Reagan put it best, “If you get in bed with the government, you’ll never get a good night’s sleep. Keep one eye open”. So, you have all these wonderful charities that are doing great work but they’re not competing for the resources. A result of not competing for the resources is they don’t become one of the social service providers recommended by federal, state and local governments.

The tragedy that is more important than them not receiving the resources is people in need are not getting access to the best services. So, if we’re not competing, if we’re not taking that seat at the table, people in need are not getting access to really the full portfolio of opportunities. I love what President Bush used to say that, “Addictions for people to be delivered from addictions requires a change of heart and habits. We believe that happens through work and power of the holy spirit”.

What’s at stake, if faith-based organizations do not compete for public funds?

Todd Lamphere: Well, the biggest thing at stake is the care of our children. There’s a new sheriff in town and there’s an administration that is very faith friendly. We happen to have an assistant secretary of ACF who is also very faith friendly.

So, how would you engage the faith community and what would you say to the faith community as it results in being part of the process?

Lynn Johnson: Today, we know that faith communities can now apply for grants. They are equal partners, they can request the resources and can compete, where in the past that was not always the case. So, I encourage faith communities, should they need the additional dollars, to remember that federal grants come with rules and regulations of how they need to do some things. But with that said, if these resources can wrap around a vulnerable population and we move to success, that outcome is what we’re driving for.

How can organizations separate evangelism discipleship from the social services?

Lynn Johnson: Lynn Johnson: We need the faith-based organizations, churches, people of faith to not be afraid of that. Any more than we need our government agencies not to be afraid of that. We all have a role and we all have a piece of this puzzle. Every person is unique in their challenges and are unique in their assets. The faith-based groups can find where that works for them. Ultimately, if someone ends up attending their church, that is fantastic. If not, it’s still fantastic because they move to a place of health that helps them walk in this country successfully.

We as people of faith, need to know that we can walk our actions and do what we say without pushing the separation of church and state to a point where it completely shuts us off.


What is your vision and strategy for engaging the faith community to find forever families for children in the foster care system?

Lynn Johnson: Many people from nonprofits to churches have asked me, ‘What they can do?’ What we find out is that so many of us in social services, we dump every problem that we’re working through on the churches. And say, ‘Here’s what’s going wrong and how can you fix it?’

I’ve learned that doesn’t work. What we want to do is always have prayer. We always need to pray for our staff, for our families, for our leadership and then we move into dissecting the needs. So, all churches and faith-based entities have their own passions. We take that apart and say what is the passion of this group and how can they move to action, so we actually get to true success? Can I actually count that? “There are 342 families better off because a church wrapped around them to help them with their poverty.” That’s what we’re looking at doing now.

So, I looked at the really good work that Congress has done to pass the Families First Prevention Services Act. What that did was move prevention to the front end of the foster and adoption system. With that said, children still have to be abused or neglected to get into the system to get those prevention services. So, the administration for Children and Family, hand-in-glove with that bill have said, let’s move it a step backwards, let’s bring the community together to do primary prevention. Primary prevention of poverty, primary prevention for foster care, for abuse, for neglect. For anything that touches the administration for Children and Families, we want to try to prevent the crisis from happening.

Crisis is very expensive to the taxpayer. By doing primary prevention not only are we saving money, but we are saving lives. As we move to primary prevention and strength in families, we look at the fact that some 50% of children who are removed from homes because of neglect is because they are poor. That’s not okay—never is that okay. What we need to do as a community and as a government is wrap around those families and help strengthen them. If we do that, that’s a big number of children that do not go into a system without their parents being around. So, that’s step one. We are stressing primary prevention in all child welfare departments all through each state and everywhere that we talk.

Then we look at what’s already happening. We have about 400,000 children or more in our current system. 125,000 of those children have already had their parental rights terminated and have an adoption plan. We are looking at that 125,000. So, when people ask me, “What can we do?” I say, “Let’s help find those forever homes for these 125,000 children”.

Majority of them are over the age of 10. So, we need to look at how we’re going to work with teens, how we’re going to work with children who may have been in our system and have had trauma for a long time. We know that these are America’s kids, we know that we have to wrap around them and we know that we owe it to these children to provide them loving and forever homes. So, we are working and asking every Church in America, every nonprofit agency, every government agency to look at their numbers to see what they can do.

Can we wrap around a child, help find a forever home and for that parent that steps up to say, ‘I want to adopt a high-risk teenage child or just a teenager that acts like a teenager’? Can the church wrap around those families? Can we help wrap around the families that are in poverty so that children aren’t removed from them? Nobody, who loves their children should lose them because they’re poor. We have a lot to do, but that’s where our faith community can step up and do the primary prevention.

Love up a family that is adopting a child and let’s do this, so that five years from now we’re still not talking about this same group of 125,000 children. Let’s say, we have zero. So, let’s work harder on primary prevention substance abuse, mental health, homelessness and those other issues.

Todd Lamphere: It’s a great match. Every community has children that are in the foster care system. Every community has children that need to be adopted and every community has churches that are in there that could meet this need.

Dave Donaldson: We’ve talked about, in the midst of all the rancor division in Washington D.C. and in our state houses, if something could bring us together this can. I think everybody wants to find good healthy safe homes for these kids. I love the ‘Adopt Kids’ Campaign. You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent. I love watching those commercials.

Also, I love how you began to share this continuum of care for this child. We know there are many options, so it could be providing a refrigerator for an impoverished family so they don’t lose their kids. It could be providing respite for foster parents. There are many ways you can participate to wrap your arms around these kids.

How can someone begin the process of becoming a foster parent or an adoptive parent? And what are some other ways we can wrap around foster kids?

Lynn Johnson: For somebody who wants to adopt, there are multiple options. There’s the private adoption movement, where you could go into a private agency. There are also the children in our foster care system. So, depending on the state and the county, the individual would go to their local county human service department, the child welfare department and ask to talk to someone about certifying to become a foster parent and or an adoptive parent. That would be the first step. Every state has different rules and regulations steps. But we are working very hard to eliminate extensive burdens and barriers that keep people from becoming parents.

We want safe loving homes and we don’t want any child returned back to the system, because they didn’t have support. Sadly, that happens. Every child deserves to have a place to go for Thanksgiving, for Christmas and for Easter and for any other holidays and we can make that happen. I’ve worked with children who have said I don’t want to be adopted—the child doesn’t want to. Then at age 22 they’re celebrating an adoption, but they had to understand and know that they were truly loved. So, looking at being permanent for a teenager is also very very important. Adoption doesn’t have to happen right away.

You can become that permanent home that a child feels safe in, because then they don’t feel disloyal to their biological parents or they don’t fear that they will be given back and over time that adoption may happen as a young adult. So, we encourage everyone in any way to wrap around a child. We have many children who age out of the foster care system with nobody that cares for them as a permanent support. That aging out moves a child and young youth to the homeless system or into the mental health system, and most often into our criminal justice system. It’s time for that to end and no child should ever age out of our system.

How is the faith community participating?

Todd Lamphere: CityServe is a great bridge for churches to be able to help meet those needs when 60% of children that are taken away due to poverty. We can help that, so churches are stepping up and they’re being part of the solution instead of just griping about the problem. So, I think pastors have to see it, feel it and then fill it. That’s really the process for a pastor is to get outside of the four walls of the church and to really take on some true-blue Matthew 25 ministry. God digs the underdog and God loves the marginalized.

So, I think that’s where it begins. It begins with pastors who are going to be able to see their community through the eyes of Jesus.

“If just one family in every church in America would say we are going to provide foster care adoption for one child, we could eradicate fatherlessness in America”.