Failure to protect

Some fear leader of Jackson County Children’s Division is spreading herself too thin

Updated: 2014-01-02T19:14:34Z

By LAURA BAUER and JUDY L. THOMAS

The Kansas City Star

When Tanya Keys was hired to lead the Jackson County Children’s Division two years ago, social workers and area child welfare advocates thought conditions in the office couldn’t get much worse.

The number of children under state supervision had increased for several years. Office morale was low and tensions were high between people in the community and the previous director.

“Some of us are drowning out here, and I truly believe that the life jackets are about to be thrown,” one worker told an organizational review team in 2011.

Keys, a former child welfare official from Kansas, would turn things around in the Jackson County office, Missouri officials believed.

But things don’t seem to be working out that way. Especially in the eyes of some who have complained that it’s impossible for Keys and her boss, Children’s Division Director Candace Shively, to focus on problems in the office when they have taken on jobs and obligations outside the child welfare system.

Shively, who worked with Keys at Kansas’ child welfare agency and has been with the Missouri department for three years, will retire at the end of this month, her boss announced Sept. 12. Some recently had raised concerns because Shively owns a real estate business at the Lake of the Ozarks, which she opened after taking the top Missouri child welfare post.

As for Keys, she ran for — and won — a seat on the Fairway City Council in April, a move that rankled many who wondered how she could split her time and attention when her agency was in upheaval. Keys earns about $72,000 as the director in Jackson County.

“She’s a public figure in the state of Missouri,” said Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat. “The job we’ve tasked her with is taking care of the abused and neglected children of Jackson County. For me, someone who has that kind of gig should spend their time and energy on that gig.”

LaFaver said he was told by officials that Keys, who has lived in Fairway for the past decade, has always been engaged in her community and the City Council was just an example of that.

However, he said, “I always thought her community was Jackson County.”

Keys did not respond to a request for comment. State officials, speaking on her behalf, said the Department of Social Services encourages staff members to be involved in their community “as a learning and growth experience.”

Keys asked for and received permission to run for the nonpartisan office, the officials said.

On a Facebook page about her campaign for Ward 4 representative, Keys described her passion for Fairway.

“I am committed and focused on being your voice for neighborhood and community interests,” she wrote. In April, she was the top vote-getter with 67 votes.

Current and former child welfare workers question how Keys can do her Children’s Division job well while also holding an elected position.

“How can you justify running for city council somewhere else,” one current worker said, “when we’re in dire need of leadership here?”

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