New director vows changes at Missouri’s troubled social services department

Even as Robert Knodell addressed lingering concerns, new issues emerged during a Tuesday legislative hearing

By: - November 16, 2021 3:52 pm

Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City (Creative Commons photo by Lee Harkness/Flikr).

The new acting director of Missouri’s troubled Department of Social Services pledged to lawmakers Tuesday that he would work to address the agency’s long list of challenges and “tears in our safety net.”

The Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect heard for the first time from the new acting department director, Robert Knodell. 

Knodell ticked through a list of obstacles the agency has faced in recent years, from litigation and uncertainty surrounding Medicaid expansion; large caseloads and low pay contributing to vacancies and low morale among frontline case workers; and long wait times for Missourians attempting to access services.

The agency has also faced intense scrutiny over the last year for its handling of allegations of abuse and neglect at unlicensed boarding schools and more recently for its failure to notify authorities when foster kids are reported missing.

“These are challenges that cannot wait,” Knodell said.

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

Knodell, Gov. Mike Parson’s former deputy chief of staff who most recently served as the acting director of the state health department, said he has embarked on a 90-day evaluation of the department, which includes traveling across the state to listen to frontline workers’ concerns.

Tuesday’s hearing marked a change in tone from the many hearings over the last year where furious state lawmakers often grilled the former acting head of the department, Jennifer Tidball.

Hannah Kelly, a Mountain Grove Republican and chair of the committee, said Tuesday’s hearing was in the spirit of accountability and moving forward.

“I know that the entire legislative body anticipates change and good outcomes for our kids,” Kelly said.

But even as Knodell vowed change, new issues facing the department arose.

This year, lawmakers passed legislation in an effort to provide oversight of unlicensed religious reform schools that had faced allegations of child abuse and neglect. As part of the new law, both licensed and unlicensed youth residential facilities must require background checks for staff and volunteers.

But a backlog has contributed to hiring delays for facilities — including forcing one to close temporarily due to a lack of staff.

“There is a huge backlog of background checks, and that is hindering employment,” said Rep. Ann Kelley, R-Lamar.

Caitlin Whaley, the department’s director of legislation and communications, said the department anticipated it would face a bottleneck as it works to train staff. Currently, the department only has two employees fully onboarded to process thousands of background checks, Whaley said.

“The Department of Social Services had to stand up a brand new unit without any appropriations of additional staff to implement that law,” Whaley said.

In addition to at least one facility having to stop services due to staffing issues, Mary Chant, the executive director of the Missouri Coalition for Children, said some providers have had to shutter parts of their programs and serve fewer children.

“We want to work to figure out how we can continue to ensure safety so that we’re making sure those who have access are vetted like they should be, but at the same time being able to continue to serve children and families,” Chant said, “because of the risk that happens to the children and families who are not served.”

Jessica Seitz, the executive director of Missouri KidsFirst, an advocacy organization that represents child advocacy centers across the state, said the legislative efforts, while positive, may have strained the agency.

“When we fail to give Children’s Division appropriate resources to do their statutorily required obligations, we put the safety of our kids at risk,” Seitz said. “And our policy improvements, and anything we want to do in the future, will not succeed.”

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, also raised questions as to why a bill passed in 2020 that aims to extend postpartum mental health care to a year after giving birth for women who receive health care coverage through Medicaid has yet to be implemented.

Schupp said she has been given varying and at times conflicting reasons for why it hasn’t moved forward. During Tuesday’s hearing, Whaley said it was because funding had not been expressly appropriated for the new coverage by state lawmakers.

“When we fail to give Children’s Division appropriate resources to do their statutorily required obligations, we put the safety of our kids at risk. And our policy improvements, and anything we want to do in the future, will not succeed.”

– Jessica Seitz, executive director of Missouri KidsFirst

Lawmakers also continued to press for updates on issues previous hearings have focused on, such as the department’s handling of missing foster kids and retention of frontline case workers.

A federal watchdog’s report found the department’s Children’s Division missed opportunities to prevent foster kids from going missing, repeatedly failed to report to authorities kids’ absence and did little to prevent them from going missing again when found. Lawmakers previously described the report as “disturbing” and accused department leadership of passing the buck.

On Tuesday, Knodell said the department is looking at a “comprehensive upgrade” to its Family and Children Electronic System that is “long overdue.”

“We believe that we may have one-time resources to be able to fund an upgrade to that system that would greatly reduce the workload,” that case workers must devote to paperwork, Knodell said.

The federal watchdog’s report also recommended the department upgrade its system to allow for the ability to distinguish between foster children who are missing and whose whereabouts are unknown versus children in an unauthorized placement that officials are aware of.

Joanie Rogers, the interim Children’s Division director, said Tuesday that the department requested to fix the issue in early 2020. However, to do so would cost an estimated $90,000 and a monthslong wait, Rogers said the state’s IT division told the department.

“To have a request that’s a year old on a computer system, I mean that’s ridiculous,” said Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston. “That’s awful.”

The hearing also returned to a perennial issue facing the department: low morale and high turnover among frontline case workers.

The department has hired the consulting firm Accenture to do a “top to bottom” review on case ratios, staffing challenges and shortages within the department. The review is ongoing, Knodell said Tuesday.

“I have to say, I don’t believe too many more things would boost the morale of your employees than a pay raise,” Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson said, “and good lord knows that we tried.”

In an effort to address high-turnover, this year lawmakers included in the department’s budget $2.1 million in funding for three percent pay raises for Children’s Division case workers. But in July, Parson vetoed the funding.

Knodell said the department was working on a compensation strategy and hoped lawmakers would work with him again on the issue of employee raises to “get the job done and see it all the way to the finish line.”

Seitz said she’s heard of an alarming number of vacancies within the Children’s Division and burnout and low morale following widespread layoffs last year. She fears adding more full-time positions will only lead to more vacancies, and instead urged the state to invest in retention of current staff and better recruitment efforts.

“If we don’t have a strong Children’s Division,” Seitz said, “our kids lose.”

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.