Voices of AMCHP: Janis Gonzales, MD, MPH, FAAP
December 06, 2023

Region VI Director (2022-2025)

Dr. Janis Gonzales is a pediatrician and public health physician and currently works as the Chief Health Officer for the New Mexico (NM) Early Childhood Education and Care Department, one of the few department-level agencies in the country dedicated to the prenatal to five population. Prior to taking on this role, Dr. Gonzales served as the Maternal Child Health Director/Title V Director in the New Mexico Department of Health, where she had oversight of several programs, including Children’s Medical Services, Families FIRST, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Family Planning, Maternal Child Health Epidemiology, and Maternal and Child Health. [read more]

As part of our Voices of AMCHP series, designed to highlight our dedicated Board members and their work, we invited Dr. Gonzales to share some insights on her background, journey serving on AMCHP’s Board of Directors, and her advice for established MCH professionals to foster meaningful partnerships.

What motivated you to join AMCHP’s Board of Directors?

I have always admired AMCHP for its mission and the work they do to support maternal and child health (MCH) programs and families nationwide, especially families with children with special needs. As a mother of a child with special needs myself, that resonated deeply with me. After being Title V Director in NM for several years, I wanted to contribute in a larger way by serving on the AMCHP Board. I was also excited about the AMCHP role after talking to past Board members who loved their experience on the Board and the relationships they built. Joining the AMCHP Board seemed like a natural next step in my progression of MCH work.

How do your background and experience contribute to your role as a Regional Director of AMCHP’s Board of Directors?

I believe I bring a unique combination of education and lived experience to this role, which allows me to relate to all the various aspects of the MCH work. I have had three children, one with complex medical needs, and I have had to navigate the medical and insurance systems both as a parent and a physician. As a pediatrician, I am trained to look at the health of the whole child – physical, mental, relational, and spiritual health – and to view the child in the context of their family and community. As a public health professional, I understand the need to work with, not on, communities and to listen deeply to the people being impacted by the policies we create, as well as the need to develop programs that reach and serve ALL, not just the majority.

How has your role on AMCHP’s Board of Directors contributed to your work?

After serving as Title V Director in NM for six years I took a new position as the Chief Health Officer in the newly created Early Childhood Education and Care Department (ECECD). The Department was started in July 2020, in the midst of the early pandemic. Being on the AMCHP Board is important as it allows me to bring a national perspective to the work we are doing in NM to build a comprehensive, equitable, high-quality early childhood system. My role at ECECD centers on trying to better connect the early childhood and healthcare systems, and learning from other states is very helpful as this is a relatively new and challenging area.

How does your clinical experience as a medical doctor inform your leadership role in public health and vice versa?

I think if we learned anything from COVID it is that public health and clinical medicine have to work hand in hand if we really want to improve health outcomes. Having clinical experience gives me a unique perspective and understanding of how the public health and healthcare systems interrelate and how the collaboration between those two systems could be improved. As past president of the NM Pediatric Society, I also have connections with other medical groups on both the state and national levels that I bring to public health work.

What motivated you to work in the maternal and child health field?

My third child was born with Down Syndrome, and then developed leukemia at age two. She is really my guiding star in everything I have done in my life since she passed. After medical school and residency, I got my Master of Public Health (MPH), so my intention was always to work in public health at some point. After a year of being in and out of hospitals with my daughter, it felt like the right time to make a change. I left private practice pediatrics and joined NM’s Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs (CYSHCN) program as their Medical Director so I could help children like Cariana and their families throughout the state on a population level. The people who work in MCH are the most dedicated, caring people I have ever met. I have spent the last 16 years in various roles within MCH in NM, progressing into higher leadership positions but still maintaining my passion for children with special needs.

May you please share with us your ‘why’ for working to support early childhood programming? Who or what activities cultivated and supported you as you pursued your “why”?

I have been the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Early Childhood Chapter Champion in NM for about a decade now, so my connection with early childhood programs and services has grown over that time. Pediatrics and early childhood professionals naturally have a lot in common because we understand on a deep level how critical those first 1000 days of a child’s life are, and we both see children in the context of their families and communities, not just as individuals. High-quality early childhood programs — such as home visiting, child care, and early intervention – help build those safe, stable, and nurturing relationships that children and families need to thrive and flourish. My daughter’s personal experience with early intervention showed me first-hand how this program benefits families and children. As I said before, my children really are my “why” for everything in my life!

Seeing AMCHP’s strategic direction reflected in the strategic map, what are you most excited for our organization to potentially accomplish by 2027?

I love the whole strategic plan, but I am especially excited about the support for the workforce. The public health workforce (like the early childhood workforce) was struggling even before the pandemic, but COVID exacerbated an already fragile situation. I think we will be dealing with burnout, depression, and the need for better work-life balance for many years into the future.

Thinking about the 2024 AMCHP Annual Conference theme, Partnering with Purpose, what advice would you give other established MCH professionals like yourself to foster good partnerships that share and build power and amplify the voices of the people we serve?

In NM we have spent many years intentionally building relationships with community-based organizations, especially those in historically underserved and underinvested communities and populations. We recognize that communities in NM vary widely, and that each community has unique needs and assets. One piece of advice I would give everyone doing this work is to remember that it is critical to think about how to distribute funding in a way that is truly equitable and addresses historic underfunding. In particular, it is critical to fund capacity building with community organizations to develop a strong infrastructure. We are building a foundational structure of local early childhood coalitions, rooted in community, and have been working to connect those coalitions with the county and tribal health councils in their area. We are also deliberately focusing on building family leaders and elevating the family voice by developing a Family Leadership Council and weaving family engagement into all our agencies and programs. We still have a long way to go, but we are committed to a local-to-state strategy that centers families and communities.