New Human Services boss relies on her have-not past

New Human Services boss relies on her have-not past

Thursday, February 15, 2007

BY SUSAN K. LIVIO, Star-Ledger Staff

She lives in an affluent suburb. She held big jobs in the corporate world and worked as an attorney. Now she’s running the state’s largest and most complex agency.

But Jennifer Velez, New Jersey’s new acting Human Services commissioner, says she feels more at home with those who count on her department for a helping hand than with her well-heeled peers.

Velez, 41, Gov. Jon Corzine’s choice to run Human Services full time, comes to the job knowing first-hand what it’s like to rely on the public welfare and Medicaid programs she now oversees. They were her family’s safety net following her parents’ divorce when she was a toddler. And times remained tough after her mother remarried.

“We always rented, then we moved into a trailer park in Moonachie,” Velez said. “I didn’t even understand what it meant not to worry about money. When people had a house, I didn’t know how they got that.

“I tell my kids, never, never make fun of anybody. When people make trailer-park-trash jokes, I tell my kids, you never know someone’s background. Everybody is a product of their experiences.”

Advocates say they take comfort in Corzine’s choice of Velez, who spent the last nine years crafting health and social policy in three high-level state government jobs.

“She’s a fierce advocate for people who don’t have a voice,” said Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex). “She grew up under difficult circumstances, so she understands life in a real-world way. She isn’t your typical bureaucrat or high-level administration type.”

Born in Englewood, Velez and her family lived in South Hackensack before moving to Moonachie. Her mother was a secretary and her stepfather was a factory worker.

“I had two paper routes — the Daily News in the morning, and the Herald News at night,” she said. “I always made money, I always worked.”

After putting herself through Drew University and Rutgers Law School, Velez spent nearly a decade in the corporate world and later became a labor attorney. In 1997, she read a newspaper story about the tasks facing then-state Human Services Commissioner William Waldman. It changed her life.

“Everything from food stamps to child care to welfare and Medicaid — it was everything either I grew up with or was interested in,” she said.

Velez joined Gov. Christie Whitman’s chief counsel’s office, and helped draft the FamilyCare health insurance program for the working poor; the Homeless Youth Act to help kids leaving foster care when they become 18; and the Kinship Legal Guardianship program, providing money for relatives — mostly grandparents — who raise children whose parents cannot.

“She showed terrific judgment from the word go — great judgment with people, great judgment on issues, and a real interest in the kind of issues Human Services deals with,” said John Farmer Jr., who hired Velez when he was Whitman’s chief counsel. “They are the really thankless issues the state has to deal with — mental illness, developmental disabilities, welfare.”

While working on children’s issues, Velez met Kevin Ryan, then counsel to Covenant House, a youth shelter, and now state Children and Families Commissioner. Ryan picked Velez as his first assistant after becoming the state’s first Child Advocate in 2003. She led a probe into the overcrowding and illegal holding of mentally ill children at the juvenile detention centers.

For the past year, she’s been deputy Human Services commissioner in charge of the Medicaid and welfare divisions. Velez said her skills as a manager were tested last summer when Corzine shut down state government for eight days after he and the Legislature reached a budget impasse.

“I was triaging all of the problems the department experiences in a compressed period, making sure everyone got their welfare checks and their child support, and making sure people who take care of people with developmental disabilities got paid,” Velez said. “I don’t think I slept at all.”

Advocates for the poor don’t expect Velez to get much sleep in her new job, which Corzine offered after his first choice, Clarke Bruno, quit after having trouble with the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation process. She is expected to be approved: “It sounds like we got it right this time,” said Sen. John Adler (D-Camden), committee chairman.

The department has daunting problems. More than 7,000 people with developmental disabilities are waiting for the state to help plan where they will live when their families can no longer care for them. Poverty grows as safety net programs shrink. Two patients were killed by other patients over the past seven months at an overcrowded psychiatric hospital overseen by the department.

Advocates cite high turnover at the top as part of the problem. Velez is the sixth commissioner to run the department since 2003.

“I know she’s personally committed to poverty awareness and helping kids and disadvantaged people generally,” said Melville “Dee” Miller, executive director for Legal Services of New Jersey, a nonprofit that represents indigent clients. “It’s delivery time now. That’s the challenge of the job. It’s a hard, hard job.”

Velez is already accustomed to the long hours. One recent night she arrived after 11 p.m. at her home in Summit, where she lives with her husband of 11 years, Richard Fiore, a pharmaceutical industry marketing consultant, and their two young children.

A vegetarian who doesn’t cook, she munched on one of her favorite meals: a bowl of cereal combining Frosted Mini-Wheats and Honey Bunches of Oats, with fruit.

Velez said a day before Corzine offered her the job, she was ready to accept a less demanding post at the state Health Department.

“My kids were looking forward to me being home more,” she said. When the call came on Feb. 1, her husband made the choice easier. “He said I would regret it the rest of my life if I turned it down. He said we’ll make it work.”

Although she’s optimistic she can make a difference, Velez understands the frustrations of government. Last year, she celebrated her 40th birthday by taking a trip to Nicaragua with her best friend from college. There, they spent a week with a nonprofit group building two houses for the poor.

“Every day in government you feel like you are running in quicksand to make things better,” she said. “And this was a week and we made their dream come true.”

Susan K. Livio may be reached at slivio@starledger.com or (609) 989-0802.

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