Failure to protect

Some workers say drive for professionalism in Jackson County Children’s Division has turned oppressive

Updated: 2014-01-02T19:14:58Z

By LAURA BAUER and JUDY L. THOMAS

The Kansas City Star

Shortly after new management took over the Jackson County child welfare office two years ago, they called top workers to a meeting on team-building.

Sharon Becker, a program manager at the time, remembers a friend motioning for her to sit beside him.

“‘I’m not sitting next to you,’” Becker recalled saying. “It was a joke.”

But the office’s new regional director, Tanya Keys, didn’t see it that way. After that meeting, Keys pulled her aside and Becker said she was told that her comment “was offensive and unprofessional, and it could not happen again or I would be written up for it.”

As it turns out, joking wasn’t the only thing off-limits with the new regime. Since Keys took over, strict rules of behavior have been put into place and enforced.

Veteran workers say she has a clinical management style more suited for an accounting firm than a social services agency charged with protecting the state’s most vulnerable children.

Community advocates and lawmakers have heard complaints from employees about an oppressive work environment. But they also say they understand the desire for change after a scathing organizational review two years ago found a lack of professionalism in the office.

“To change the culture of an organization or institution like this, it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of time,” said Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat. “Sometimes you can shock the system, and that sets the tone. Or you can constantly push it instead of slamming into it. …

“But what I hear from others is they’ve gone too far.”

The review team pointed out in 2011 that workers often dressed inappropriately, and office behavior was described as problematic: “Staff reported profanity and vulgar language. … Members of the management team reported the use of profanity and yelling in their management team meetings and in their interactions with their staff.”

Although some workers say the new policies are demeaning and have made poor working conditions even worse, state leaders said behavior in the workplace had to be improved.

“There’s a standard of decorum,” Brian Kinkade, acting director of the Missouri Department of Social Services, said in an interview in July. “There were concerns on how we were presenting ourselves to the community and performing in Jackson County.”

Department spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel said Friday by email that results of the 2011 organizational review “warranted a more directive management style in resetting the organizational culture.” She added: “Steady progress has been made in establishing a more professional work environment and expectations.”

According to former workers, Children’s Division employees have been disciplined for joking with colleagues and suspended for cursing.

“I said ‘crap’ and I got in trouble,” said one former worker, who left months ago and didn’t want to be named for fear of reprisal because she is still in social services. “I got a verbal reprimand and (was told) I would be written up if I said it again.”

Marni Scott, who left the agency in December after nearly two decades, said another worker was penalized for using saltier language.

“Tanya said, ‘How’s your day going?’ And they said, ‘Shitty,’ and they got written up,” Scott said.

Another former supervisor said one worker was docked a day’s pay for saying a bad word.

The crackdown has been a sharp contrast from previous managers, who workers say didn’t mind when staff occasionally spoke frankly and off the cuff. After all, their jobs are consumed with gruesome abuse cases and combative families.

When the review team came back this summer, it noted a new focus on professionalism. Members cited specific expectations on behavior, language and dress.

“It was evident to the review team there is a sincere desire on the part of management to create and promote a more positive work environment for staff,” the team wrote.

In his interview, Kinkade defended Keys for trying to raise standards in the local office.

“Has she gone too far or not? Time will tell,” he said. “It’s hard for me to be terribly concerned that Tanya is saying, ‘I don’t want to hear swearing in the office.’

“When you’re in confined areas like that, that can be destructive. I understand the need to set standards, and there’s a balance there. And we do expect our employees to be professional and to be respectful.”

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