‘I think you’re lying’: Missouri lawmakers demand change in child welfare agency

·11 min read

For the fourth time in six weeks, the leader of Missouri’s child welfare agency found herself sitting before a panel of angry legislators with a list of questions.

Why, lawmakers wanted to know, didn’t anyone with the Department of Social Services tell them about allegations of abuse in faith-based boarding schools?

And why did acting director Jennifer Tidball and her agency under-report the number of substantiated abuse and neglect findings at multiple unlicensed schools?

And why, at a time when the Children’s Division is saddled with high caseloads and an alarming turnover rate, did she turn down a Senate committee’s offer last month to help with staffing, saying she didn’t need more full-time employees?

At one point, Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, had heard enough.

“I don’t believe the excuses about the numbers you gave us,” she said, looking straight at Tidball. “Everybody else is nice. I’m just not nice about it. I don’t care. I think you’re lying. … I don’t buy any of it. I don’t buy it at all. I just think it’s hogwash.”

Tidball, and the agency she’s led for two years, have come under intense scrutiny for months now, leading many lawmakers to wonder if it’s time for a change in leadership.

In addition to questions about abuse and neglect at unlicensed boarding schools, legislators on a House oversight committee have raised questions about how DSS has handled family visits during COVID and why some parents haven’t been able to see their children for about a year.

Lawmakers were surprised and confused by Tidball’s response to a Senate committee’s offer on staffing for an agency that has been chastised for underpaying front-line workers and has at times been crippled by a 35 percent turnover rate.

“Any time that the legislature offers you an opportunity to increase their salary, it’s a good way to retain staff — that’s a great way to recruit them for sure,” said Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit. “I would highly recommend that you accept that.”

Ingle, a licensed social worker and former Jackson County Children’s Division employee, said staff in the state are “abysmally paid.”

“I was licensed in two states and have a master’s degree and maxed out as a specialist at $36,000,” Ingle said. Earlier in her career, as an alternative care worker spending 60 hours a week on the job, she said, she made around $27,000 a year.

“Obviously, the most important staff at the Children’s Division are the frontline workers,” Ingle said. “There’s no one more important than those people that are going out into our communities and laying eyes on children, ensuring their safety.”

The House committee met twice with Children’s Division workers behind closed doors, once until late at night.

One Children’s Division investigator told The Star that those in leadership have no experience in dealing with frontline workers.

“There’s nobody in the central office that’s ever done investigations,” said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “It’s way past time for new leadership. But not only that, we need leadership that’s got some backbone and some skills.

“It also can’t be political. We can’t play politics with our vulnerable population. So let’s have politics stay out of it for a little bit and get somebody in there that’s stable and can appreciate what people on the front line are doing.”

As high as turnover is now, she said, “if something doesn’t change soon, more people are going to leave.”

“And if people keep leaving at this rate and we can’t retain them, kids in Missouri are not safe,” she said. “It takes a good two years to really get in a groove and be really good at what you do. There’s no way we can assure the safety of every kid on every hotline that comes in throughout the state when you can’t even get somebody through their training period and get them out and working cases. It’s scary. It’s truly scary.”

Tidball told Ingle and other committee members that she didn’t turn down an offer for more money to fund raises — she said she was only asked whether the agency needed more full-time staff. She said she told senators the agency didn’t need any additional full-time employees at that time because it couldn’t get enough people to apply for positions as it was.

She also said that she’d recently learned that according to the agency’s accreditation, it has an appropriate ratio of workers for the number of cases.

One committee member pointed out that Tidball had received a raise in the past year. The acting director’s salary in 2020 was $147,543, according to state records. Her current annual pay is $160,000.

Tidball’s experience with the department — she’s been with the agency since 1995 — also has come up with lawmakers, as some questioned whether she could empathize with frontline workers.

“Have you ever been in the trenches?” asked Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson.

“I have shadowed team members,” Tidball began to explain.

Proudie interrupted: “Have YOU done this work?”

“No, I don’t do this work,” Tidball said. “… I did not come up through the child welfare ranks.”

Acting director for two years

Gov. Mike Parson appointed Tidball as acting DSS director on May 14, 2019.

At the time, Parson said he believed that Tidball — who had been serving as the agency’s deputy director and had a previous stint in 2017 as acting director — would “build off the positive reforms made within the department” under the previous director.

The department has suffered through a tumultuous 8½ years with four different leaders. One served a stint as an acting director before eventually being appointed director. Another served as director for just five months.

Tidball herself is on her second tenure as an acting director.

Prior to serving in the top leadership post, Tidball was the director of the Division of Finance and Administrative Services at DSS and served as the interim director of Missouri’s Medicaid agency.

“I have full confidence the Department of Social Services will continue providing excellent service to the people of Missouri under her leadership,” Parson said in a news release when he appointed her .

But now some wonder why it has taken so long to name a permanent director of such an important agency, which oversees the welfare of thousands of Missouri children. DSS has the largest budget of any state department and has 5,957 “team members,” Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones said.

The Star asked Parson’s office last week why a permanent director hadn’t been appointed.

Jones responded in an email: “The recent pandemic created many obstacles to recruitment and required focus and a need for continuity of operations.”

Even lawmakers outside the oversight committee have expressed concerns over what to do about the troubled agency. The topic came up on the Senate floor Tuesday as legislators debated — and passed — a bill that would for the first time give the state some oversight over unlicensed boarding schools.

The legislation “wants to put these boarding schools under the purview of the Department of Social Services and Children’s Division,” said Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, who has faith-based boarding schools in her district. “What was once free to operate would instead come under the thumb of government agencies and bureaucrats who are already struggling to administer our state’s programs for foster children.

“I would contend that we don’t have a lack of enough laws; we have a lack of follow-through on behalf of our bureaucracy. If we don’t straighten the Children’s Division out...we’re not solving anything. And I think this has gone on for not just a while, but for years.”

‘Ignored or failed to act on’ problems

Lawmakers have publicly called out DSS for its failure to protect students and started grilling agency officials shortly after The Star’s initial investigation of abuse inside several of the Christian boarding schools.

The Star revealed that several former students, parents and staffers had reported allegations of abuse to school officials, the state child welfare agency and county law enforcement. Some complaints were investigated, The Star found. Others were not.

Ultimately, DSS substantiated abuse and neglect in at least four schools in southern Missouri. One facility alone had 10 findings of neglect, and another had six substantiated cases of abuse and neglect.

Yet no one at DSS alerted legislators that there was a problem with a nearly 40-year-old statute that exempts faith-based residential facilities from regulation, allowing them to operate without a license or any scrutiny or interference from the government. The Show-Me state is one of just two — South Carolina is the other — that has no regulations at all for faith-based boarding schools. The law passed last week would immediately change that, if Parson signs it.

“It’s clear that there were numerous signs of serious problems that the department either ignored or failed to act on,” said Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Nixa, chairman of the House Special Committee on Government Oversight, which he chairs.

Tidball told lawmakers that she didn’t know until recently about the abuse allegations in the unlicensed schools.

In late March, Taylor’s committee began meeting over what lawmakers viewed as DSS’ missteps, especially in the case of Circle of Hope Girls Ranch, whose owners face 102 charges, including physical and sexual abuse and statutory rape. Tidball has testified in all but one of the hearings.

By the fifth hearing, Tidball had already faced nearly eight hours of questioning.

Sharie Hahn, DSS’ general counsel, fielded most of the questions regarding inaccurate numbers as Tidball sat to her left, often silent.

Taylor pointed out that there was a discrepancy from information that was read at an earlier hearing and what was provided to lawmakers on April 27. The number of neglect findings at one unlicensed boarding school in Oregon County had shot up from two to 10.

“So I’m trying to understand,” Taylor said. “Is it incompetence? Are we trying to hide something?

“How am I supposed to, as a state representative, trust the department and get accurate information and make decisions on legislation that we’re trying to pass if I can’t get the correct accurate information from you all? This is how I make decisions.”

He went on to ask how he could trust any information the agency provided, either in the past or in the future.

“I had to rely on a Kansas City Star article that told me, ‘Hey, the information you all received was inaccurate. The information we’ve received was inaccurate,’” Taylor said. “I can’t make an informed decision if you don’t give me the correct information.

“So tell me why. Why did you give us wrong information? … What information is correct?”

As Tidball sat stone-faced, Hahn attempted to explain that DSS had been providing information on the number of investigations conducted. Now, she said, they were breaking down each investigation to provide the total number of cases within those investigations.

“So while I can understand that might cause some confusion, we felt like it did give a clearer picture,” Hahn said.

“I want to make sure that I also say there’s nothing intentional here,” she said. “Like the whole point behind breaking it down by actual incident, by actual finding, was to actually provide more information.”

Taylor and Bailey also wanted to know why kids now in the state’s custody had not been able to see their parents regularly during COVID and what damage that may have done to the entire family. They wondered if social workers had been able to see children face to face.

“These rules that you came up with for this is maddening to me,” Bailey said. “I mean, put on the hazmat suit, put on whatever you have to, but you should have gotten these kids with their parents…

“It doesn’t help the child, it doesn’t help the parents, doesn’t help anybody. I don’t even know what to say about that one. That just blows my hair back.”

Taylor said it’s crucial that the agency restores family visits in person.

”I can’t imagine being a parent, and having a child separated from me,” Taylor said, “and you taking custody of them and me not being able to have physical contact with them this entire year-and-a-half now or a year that we’ve been in COVID?

“That’s concerning to me. I mean, do you not see the issue?”

Tidball addressed Taylor’s question.

“I think that it is absolutely not ideal as far as biological parents not being able to see their children when reunification is the goal,” she said. “Especially reunification.”

Tidball provided more information about the issue at the committee’s May 6 hearing.

“As far as Children’s Division, my understanding is there will be a directive coming out within the next week or two that will basically tell team members that everything should be rolled back to normal,” she said.

At the end of the hearing, Taylor reminded Tidball that the committee still hadn’t received some of the information it asked for.

“So I’d be curious as to when that will come,” Taylor said.