‘A long time coming’: Head of Missouri’s child welfare agency removed from top post

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After months of sharp criticism from lawmakers and her own employees, the beleaguered acting director of Missouri’s Department of Social Services will no longer lead the agency.

Jennifer Tidball will step down from her current role Monday to resume her position as the department’s chief operating officer, according to a news release Tuesday from Gov. Mike Parson. She will leave the top post at DSS, which she’s held on a temporary basis for nearly 2½ years.

“It’s a long time coming,” said Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, a member of the House Special Committee on Government Oversight that has grilled Tidball several times this year. “I’m thrilled in the fact that she is not in charge of everything. And that all of our hearings and witnesses and stories coming out and just the injustices of our most vulnerable have finally hit a mark where she’s being replaced.

“In the real world, she would have been gone a long time ago.”

The Star wrote in May about Missouri’s troubled child welfare system and what many viewed as Tidball’s lack of leadership.

Robert Knodell, deputy chief of staff for Parson, will become acting director of DSS. Knodell will resign from the governor’s office effective Sunday. The next day, he will take over the social services agency.

“The Department of Social Services is excited to welcome Mr. Knodell to lead the department and the DSS team is eager to support him during this transition,” said Heather Dolce, a DSS spokeswoman. “Jennifer Tidball looks forward to resuming her role as Chief Operating Officer for DSS and continuing to support the essential work of the department.”

Lawmakers publicly called out DSS — and Tidball — earlier this year for failing to protect students inside unlicensed boarding schools. Those legislators began questioning officials shortly after The Star’s investigation of abuse inside several of those facilities.

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

Yet no one at DSS alerted legislators that there was a problem with a nearly 40-year-old statute that exempted 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 was one of just two that had no regulations for faith-based boarding schools.

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.

“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, during a hearing earlier this year of the House Special Committee on Government Oversight, which he chairs.

“We’ve seen stories in recent months that have made it too clear that there are some serious cracks or concerns in the system that too many children have fallen through.”

In July, Parson signed into law a bill that requires some oversight of unlicensed boarding schools.

Last month, Tidball’s department came under additional scrutiny when a federal watchdog agency released a report saying DSS was failing to keep track of kids who go missing from foster care and to prevent them from going missing again.

The report, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General, studied the cases of 59 children who went temporarily missing from foster care in Missouri in 2019.

That year, 978 foster care children were missing at some point, according to the report. In 27 cases — nearly half of those studied by the federal agency — there was no evidence that Missouri Children’s Division case managers had reported the children missing to local police or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as required by both federal and state law. And in 61% of the cases studied, the inspectors found no evidence in the children’s files that case managers contacted adults in the children’s lives (such as parents, juvenile officers or court-appointed representatives) to try to determine their whereabouts.

In one case where there had been no evidence of any screenings, a child who returned to foster care told her case manager she had met a man online and asked for a ride across the state to live with him, the report stated. She tried to hitchhike when the case manager refused to drive her.

“It is possible that this child was being recruited for sex trafficking, or that she had already been trafficked while she was missing from care,” the report said. “But without her having been properly screened, it is difficult to know for sure.”

Bailey said that the “incompetence, the negligence, the looking the other way, it was just at a critical point.”

“The whole boarding school thing was, still is, a disaster and a tragedy,” she said. “Then our foster kids, where they’re under our care, not being reported missing and then some of them ending up being sex trafficked is truly a worse case scenario. I can’t think of anything more awful.”

In a letter responding to the federal agency, Tidball wrote that local police often refuse to take missing persons reports of foster care youth, especially those aged 17 and older. It “may have discouraged (Children’s Division) staff from providing appropriate notice or appropriately documenting such notices in the past,” she wrote.

She said staff have “developed alternative protocols” to report missing foster care children to the Missouri Highway Patrol instead.

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 as an acting director before eventually being appointed director. Another served as director for just five months.

Tidball herself was 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 back then.

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