Kevin Ryan has been named the first lay president of Covenant House (CH), the largest homeless youth services organization in North and Central America.
Ryan, who helped usher New Jersey through a litigation-inspired reform movement, will join the organization Feb. 2.
"I have known Kevin personally for nearly 20 years, and I believe he is a perfect choice to lead this mission," former CH president Sister Mary Rose McGeady said in a statement. "He is a tireless fighter, a courageous believer in doing what's right, and a passionate believer in the dignity and beauty of every child."
Ryan cut his teeth in youth work at Covenant House New York, where he served as an advocate and legal counsel for homeless youth from 1992 to 2002.
"This is a real coming home for me in many respects," Ryan said in an interview. "I cut my teeth doing street law work" for CH.
Ryan is a practicing Catholic, but is not an official member of the church, unlike his three predecessors at CH. The organization changed its bylaws last year to permit layman presidents.
He was appointed the State of New Jersey's first child advocate in 2003, a job created by a lawsuit settlement that spurred massive reform of the state's child welfare system. In 2006, Gov. Jon Corzine (D) named him director of the state's Department of Human Services (DHS), then made him New Jersey's first commissioner of children and families, a job he left last year.Ryan then spent months helping other states deal with child welfare fiascoes through his consulting firm, the Newark, N.J.-based Public Catalyst Group. PCG serves as the monitor for Michigan, which recently settled a lawsuit with Children's Rights, which is headed by Marcia Robinson Lowry.
He will remain the court monitor in Michigan, which will be his only project for the time being at PCG.
Most recently, Ryan has been working intensely with Washington, D.C.'s Child and Family Services Agency, which two decades ago was the first actually to fight Lowry and Children's Rights in court. (It lost.) A number of children known to the agency have died in the past year, and a panic set off by those deaths helped cause a daunting backlog of cases to investigate. Ryan has been helping the city get the situation under control by, among other things, finding a permanent director for the agency and organizing efforts to reduce the backlog into a manageable process.
Ryan is the fourth president of the 37-year-old Covenant House, which currently operates 21 residential sites in six countries. The 15 U.S. sites include Anchorage, Alaska, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., Oakland, Calif., and Philadelphia.
The organization's first president, the Rev. Bruce Ritter, resigned in 1990 amidst accusations of sexual relations with a number of Covenant House boys.
Ritter also left a legacy of large shelters that flaunted federal regulations and worried other youth work leaders in Covenant House cities.
"If the nation's largest child welfare agency is to survive its current troubles, it must scrap Father Ritter's unorthodox policies," Youth Today Publisher Bill Treanor wrote of the oversized shelters in a column published in The New York Times in 1990.
The organization Ryan inherits next month is "struggling just like everyone else," CH spokesman Tom Manning says. "A big part of his mission will be to reach out, find more partnerships. We as nonprofits need to get out of the silos and work together...Ryan is experienced in doing that."
Ryan, who was a member of the child policy team for President Barack Obama (D) during his campaign, says stronger connections with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and increased partnerships with members of the National Network for Youth are among his priorities.
He also plans to push in Washington for a new federal matching process for Title IV-E foster care funds to states and a doubling of the investment in transitional living programs by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Ritter was replaced by Sister McGeady, who was succeeded five years ago by Sister Patricia Cruise. Cruise will return to her roots in Cincinnati, where she will serve as president of Seton High School starting in July 2009. Contact: Covenant House, (212) 727-4000, www.covenanthouse.org.