Former Skadden Fellow Laval Miller-Wilson Leads Pennsylvania’s Office of Children, Youth & Families

From an early age, Pennsylvania Office of Children, Youth & Families (OCYF) chief Laval Miller-Wilson (’95) had considered a career in child advocacy — inspired, in part, by the career of his father, a public-school superintendent.

After graduating from Harvard College, Laval worked at a boarding school supporting students from low-income backgrounds. He then attended Penn Carey Law, where he interned at the Defender Association of Philadelphia and became especially interested in juvenile justice and child welfare. As graduation approached, Laval’s roommate, Peter Rundlet (’95), encouraged Laval to join him in applying for a Skadden Fellowship. Both roommates were selected; Peter joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Laval went to Philadelphia’s Juvenile Law Center (JLC), where he worked to protect and advance the education rights of children in the juvenile justice system.

Laval arrived at a critical juncture for JLC and its mission. During the mid-’90s, Pennsylvania was one of many states that toughened its laws on juveniles, sending them directly to the criminal system when charged with certain offenses. County jails swelled with school-age youths detained for “adult” crimes. Laval built close relationships with public defender offices throughout Pennsylvania, especially the Defender Association. He traveled across the state, interviewing youths spending many months in jails while awaiting court dates. His research and insights culminated in the filing of a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of school-age pretrial and convicted minors detained or incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s adult county jails. The plaintiffs ultimately settled with the state, county jails and school districts, leading to the provision of basic and special education instruction for youths housed in these jails.

After completing his Fellowship, Laval stayed at JLC for more than 13 years. He continued fighting “zero tolerance” laws and policies that permanently labeled youths, especially those in the juvenile justice system, “disruptive” and barred them from the classroom. Laval also was instrumental in the infamous “Kids for Cash” case that brought international attention to Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County. After receiving a frantic call from a desperate parent, Laval led JLC’s investigation of irregularities in the county’s juvenile court, which uncovered that hundreds of children appeared without counsel and were erroneously adjudicated delinquent and transferred to out-of-home placements. Laval led JLC’s efforts to successfully petition the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to vacate those adjudications and expunge the juveniles’ records.

In 2009, Laval became executive director of the Pennsylvania Health Law Project (PHLP), a nonprofit representing individuals who need legal assistance obtaining or keeping health insurance coverage. While reluctant to leave JLC, Laval did not want to pass up the opportunity to be involved in what then-recently elected President Barack Obama and federal lawmakers identified as their biggest priority: increasing access to health care. At PHLP, Laval worked with federal and state officials on the reforms needed for Pennsylvanians to receive essential care. Remaining mindful of the impact of these issues on children, Laval collaborated with several child advocacy organizations, including the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The groups persuaded state lawmakers to fully implement the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by expanding Medicaid coverage to more parents and to ensure that coverage applied to former foster youths.

Then, in March 2023, Laval received a call from the administration of newly elected Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, asking him to serve as deputy secretary of the Office of Children, Youth & Families, an agency within the commonwealth’s Department of Human Services that oversees the delivery of child protective services by county children and youth agencies, as well as other aspects of the child welfare system, including foster care, adoption services, juvenile justice, family supports and prevention services.

To Laval, the role felt like the perfect fit at the perfect time. “At JLC and PHLP I gained experience, knowledge, skills and perspective, which readied me for the tremendous scope of responsibilities that comes with this position,” he says.

At OCYF, Laval leads approximately 700 people. The agency’s primary responsibilities center on licensing and monitoring public and private social service agencies and providers across Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. As part of those efforts, Laval oversees investigations into child abuse and neglect allegations. OCYF also operates secure residential treatment programs promoting competency development and victim awareness for people under age 21 who have been adjudicated delinquent and committed to the state. Under Laval’s stewardship, OCYF seeks to maximize young people’s treatment and minimize their time in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

Laval says that one of the greatest challenges OCYF faces is a shortage of human-services professionals. He wants to inspire others to join his field, especially to serve in state and county government. “Government officials receive the sometimes-unfair reputation of not caring or not interested in solutions,” Laval says. “But my state colleagues are smart, empathetic, dedicated and willing to hold themselves and other people accountable at all hours of the day, because that’s what the job involves. I’m really excited about the policies and programs we are building to support children and their families, and the workforce that serves them.”

In addition to restoring his workforce, Laval is striving to make OCYF more data-driven and focus on regulatory reform. He is determined to make the most of this opportunity. “My staff has seen deputy secretaries come and go as administrations change,” Laval explains. “I’m maximizing every day and doing the best I can with the time that I have.”