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Lawmakers hope new leadership jumpstarts reform at troubled agency • Missouri Independent

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After years of dysfunction and criticism — including lawsuits, legislative inquiries and a revolving door of leaders — the announcement Tuesday that Gov. Mike Parson was putting one of his top deputies in charge of the Missouri Department of Social Services was greeted with optimism.

Jennifer Tidball, the acting director of the department for the last two years and the focus of scorn for many state lawmakers, will step down from her job Monday and be replaced by Robert Knodell, the governor’s deputy chief of staff.

During her tenure, the department has faced scrutiny for its handling of reports of abuse and neglect at unlicensed youth residential facilities, fury for its failure to report missing foster kids to law enforcement and was ordered by the courts to implement voter-approved Medicaid expansion.

“I expect change. And if change does not come from her behavior within the department,” Rep. Hannah Kelly, R-Mountain View, said of Tidball, “I will not be hesitant to express my disappointment in that.”

But even with a new acting director, Tidball remains as the agency’s chief operating officer. And the frequent turnover in other leadership positions and low employee morale show no signs of abating anytime soon.

There have been eight directors of the Children’s Division — which oversees child welfare services, like foster care — in the past decade. The division is currently led by an interim director, Joanie Rogers, who started in September 2020.

Amid the fight over Medicaid expansion in the courts, and subsequent implementation, Missouri’s Medicaid program was overseen by an acting director from the spring until its director, Todd Richardson, returned from an extended leave of absence on Oct. 1.

And the Department of Social Services overall has not had a permanent director since 2019 after the resignation of former Director Steve Corsi. Tidball is serving in her second stint as acting director after being appointed by Parson in May 2019.

“Candidly speaking, I think we have an agency in duress,” Kelly Schultz, director of the Office of Child Advocate, told lawmakers at a hearing last week.

‘Leadership from the top down’

Jennifer Tidball and Joanie Rogers
Acting Department of Social Services Director Jennifer Tidball and Interim Children’s Division Director Joanie Rogers testify during a House Children and Families Committee hearing Oct. 5, 2021. (photo by of Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications)

What began last year as a legislative investigation of the department’s lack of action in response to reports of abuse and neglect at unlicensed boarding schools has continued to grow over the course of subsequent hearings, delving into a litany of problems within the department.

At many of those hearings, the agency representative hauled before lawmakers was Tidball, who has been with the department since 1995.

“While she may no longer be the public face that goes before hearings, I think that Jennifer will maintain a lot of leadership as she has for many years,” said Jessica Seitz, executive director of Missouri KidsFirst, an advocacy organization that works to protect children from abuse and neglect.

Kelly, who chairs the Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, said she hopes to see improved communication with lawmakers and “accountability with no excuses” from the department’s next leaders.

Shortly before a legislative hearing last month, Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, was even more pointed about the need for change.

“We’re in such a state of calamity for kids, that we have got to have some leadership from the top down,” Bailey said. 

Despite serving as acting director since 2019, Tidball has never been confirmed by the Senate. In an attempt to force a confirmation, lawmakers included language in this year’s budget that would have required the DSS director be “confirmed by the Senate to hold the office” in order to be paid their salary.

Parson vetoed that language, and wrote that in his veto letter that it “undermines the executive’s constitutional authority to appoint and compensate department directors.”

Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Nixa and chair of the House Special Committee on Government Oversight which has scrutinized DSS, said lawmakers may propose legislation this upcoming session requiring an acting department director be confirmed by a certain date.

“I do think that that’s important,” Taylor said ahead of a hearing with DSS last month.

Hopes for a next director

House Children and Families Committee
A House Children and Families Committee hearing on a recent federal report on missing foster kids in Missouri on Oct. 5, 2021. (photo by of Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications)

Lawmakers playing an oversight role over DSS, expressed hope last month that a new director would help right the ship. Many agreed that someone with firsthand experience in the field would be ideal.

Rep. Scott Cupps, R-Shell Knob, said last month a director who can be an effective manager and “shake things up” is necessary. But he also wants to see that coupled with someone who is passionate about the agency’s mission to avoid going “through the same dog and pony show again.”

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said too often these types of political appointments, “are people who are just given these roles who don’t have the experience or knowledge to do what’s best.”

“And I feel like when you’re dealing with child abuse and neglect,” she said, “you need somebody who’s trained in that to be running the department.”

Lawmakers also pointed to tapping someone who has worked their way up through the ranks of the department to lead it.

“I don’t want a bureaucrat. I don’t want a ‘yes’ person. ​​I don’t want someone whose family donated to the governor’s campaign or whatever for the appointment,” Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, said last month. “I want to know that the person who’s going to lead this department has done the work that they’re asking their workers to do.”

Taylor said choosing someone from within who has “been on the ground with them that’s been in the fight” could help build trust among department employees.

Lawmakers have expressed outrage at DSS leadership this year regarding department employees being told they cannot discuss issues with their legislators. The department has said employees can talk to lawmakers but it must be on their own time and speak to their personal experiences — and not on behalf of the department.

Robert Knodell, acting director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, addresses a group of state employees on May 24, 2021 (photo courtesy of the Missouri Governor’s Office).

It’s unclear when a permanent director will be in place and if Knodell would be up for the position. According to Tuesday’s news release, Knodell will be resigning from the governor’s office Oct. 17, ahead of assuming his…

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