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 children 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 Grove, 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 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'
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 new director
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.
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 position at DSS.
There was no mention of Knodell resigning ahead of serving as acting director of the Department of Health and Senior Services following former Director Randall Williams' sudden resignation in April.
Spokeswoman for DSS and the governor's office did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday confirming a search for a permanent director is underway. Knodell could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
Kelly said it was too early to comment on how soon she would like to see a permanent director chosen and whether she would like to see Knodell take on that role. She expressed confidence in Knodell's ability to take on the challenges the department has faced.
"I believe that Robert understands the importance of company morale, and the morale of the department is at an all-time low," Kelly said. "I believe that Robert understands the importance of working with the legislature for the best outcome of Missouri's kids."
Persistent staffing issues
A lack of staff, and low pay, has long plagued the agency across divisions that range from child abuse investigators to Missouri's Medicaid program to safety net programs like food stamps.
Seitz said she would like to see a permanent director of the Children's Division, which has been "even more of a revolving door." She would ultimately like to see a reinvestment in the department's workforce.
"If we don't invest in the frontline people we're expecting to carry out these plans, I don't know how effective they'll be," Seitz said.
The department faced deep cuts to its budget and workforce under former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, which continued under his successors. The Department of Social Services faced some of the highest turnover rates in 2014, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch analysis of executive branch agencies at the time.
Last July, in response to budget withholds as a result of the pandemic, about 200 department employees were laid off.
Among Parson's vetoes this year was $2.1 million budgeted for 3 percent raises for Children's Division case workers — a line item that lawmakers hoped would address high turnover in the department.
Meanwhile, this year the department said it would need two months to implement Medicaid expansion after receiving a court order, in part, because of a lack of staff.
Six years ago, a March 2015 audit found that MO HealthNet failed to recover funds from thousands of deceased Medicaid participants, costing the state more than $27 million it could have recovered. Among the reasons the department gave for the failure was a lack of sufficient staff to process cases in a timely manner.
Until the creation of the Office of Childhood this year, the Department of Social Services also oversaw the state's Child Care Subsidy Program, which supports eligible low-income families and foster children by offering a sliding scale payment system.
Amid the pandemic, child care providers recounted facing months-long delays that totaled tens of thousands of dollars in payments. At one time in late October, there was a backlog of 5,339 pending payment resolution requests, according to emails The Independent obtained through an open records request that laid bare providers' frustrations.
This article was edited at 8:44 a.m. Oct. 14, 2021, to correct the hometown of Rep. Hannah Kelly to Mountain Grove.
The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.