It’s all about the kids
Story By Jim Bisco | Photo by Laura Morella
You could say that Joan Ohl cares for many children—a nation’s worth. As commissioner of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Ohl heads a $19 billion federal agency that oversees the welfare of millions of U.S. families in need. She administers federal child welfare, child care, Head Start and family and youth services programs.
Such national responsibility is the highlight of a career in public service, a humanitarian focus instilled by her parents. “I was raised with the thought that when we leave this world, we should leave it a better place based on what we did, whether it was things that we did in our community or beyond that,” she notes during a recent visit to UB, when she received the inaugural James Hansen Humanitarian Award at the Graduate School of Education commencement. The award, honoring the late emeritus professor of counseling and educational psychology, recognizes Graduate School of Education alumni who, through their leadership, have made outstanding contributions to public service.
Ohl, who received a master of education degree in college counseling and student personnel work, regards Hansen among the UB faculty members who provided lasting influences during her two years here. “You’re fortunate enough to receive named awards but you may not know the person,” she says. “Receiving the inaugural award and knowing the person for whom it is named makes it even more special.”
Ohl arrived at UB in the fall of 1967 after graduating in education from the University of Delaware. “I was prepared to teach but I became very interested in college administration and higher education. When I visited Buffalo, I met [the late] Dr. Robert Rossberg. You pick a graduate school based on who you’re going to study with. I really liked him, that’s why I came here. After I left, he and I kept in touch over the years.”
Coming from a tiny town in Delaware, Ohl was struck by her first taste of big-city life on the Main Street campus and in downtown Buffalo. “I never lived in a city and I enjoyed the theater, symphony and the art gallery,” she says. “I had an excellent academic experience. I worked as a residence hall director at Cooke Hall, in the quadrangle behind the then-Norton Union. The second year I was head resident at Goodyear. The residences hall staff were very strong, interesting people. I’m close to four or five of them and still keep in touch.
“It was a tumultuous time. There were a number of protest rallies that included the likes of Judy Collins and Joan Baez. The rallies would spill out of the student union building and onto the quadrangle. I remember hearing Julian Bond and Andrew Young speak. There was an amount of thoughtful discussion about the Vietnam War and about where we were all going to end up,” she recalls.
After her graduation from UB in 1969, Ohl began a career of increasingly responsible positions at various colleges and universities across the country. “I discovered that I’m good at building or refocusing an organization,” she says. “I found I could communicate how to change the culture of a program or organization. Because I’ve had a number of ‘building’ positions, I’ve spent most of my career not having a predecessor.”
When her husband, Ronald, was appointed president of Salem College (now Salem International University) in West Virginia, Ohl began to interact with the state’s civic and corporate leaders, one of whom asked her to help him establish programs that would bring the public and private sectors together to improve the health of West Virginians.
Her efforts led to the development of the West Virginia Healthy Schools Program, which was a health education and nutrition project designed to become an integral part of the state’s public school system. The program was a success, and was recognized and honored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and the American Medical Association.
The Healthy Schools project and other work prompted Ohl’s appointment as secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, the state’s largest public agency, by newly elected Governor Cecil H. Underwood in 1997. In her current post, Ohl administers major federal programs that include child care for low-income families and those on public assistance, early childhood education, adoption for children with special needs, protective services for at-risk children, and social services promoting the positive growth and development of children, youth and their families. For four months this year, she also served as acting director of the Office of Family Assistance, administering the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, a federal-state partnership that provides work-oriented income support and services.
“When welfare reform passed in 1996, there was a whole new proactive approach toward moving families to self-sufficiency,” she notes. “I found it a very refreshing approach. We reduced caseloads so that the caseworker could spend time with families. Before, you’d have hundreds or thousands of people go through your offices and you just sort of processed them. Welfare reform in fact said we’re going to look at where this family is at this point in time and map out an individual plan—no cookie-cutter approach—on how we can work with this family to bring them to self-sufficiency. These programs are designed to help provide better lives.”
Ohl has contributed substantially to the president’s initiative to strengthen Head Start and to improve all early childhood development programs so that children can experience a better future. “If we don’t do the best job in preparing a child cognitively, socially and emotionally to walk through that kindergarten door, that child may not be able to be as successful [as they could be] in school and in life,” she says.
Improving the lives of older children in the child welfare and foster care systems is also a priority in the programs administered by her agency. In response to a congressional mandate, the agency began studying in depth each state’s child welfare system and the outcomes for children and families. Any systemic problems that could be barriers to effectiveness were determined, with a plan developed to address any deficiencies with each state. “Oftentimes, people will say that the child welfare system is failing. But now the child welfare system is changing,” she explains. “We’re looking at outcomes—what happens to children and families in the child welfare system—and working in partnership with states to make these systemic changes. And we need to see that institutions of higher education prepare young people—whether social workers, psychology majors, etc.—to be able to work effectively in this system.”
The objectives of her position continue to be part of Ohl’s personal crusade. “Ours is the business of seeing to it that every child in our country has legitimate hope,” she observes.