Missouri’s social service director resigns

After less than six months on the job, the director of the Missouri Department of Social Services resigned Monday.

Alan Freeman’s departure was made public in a news release issued by Gov. Jay Nixon. It said the director will return to his job as president and chief executive officer of Grace Hill Health Centers Inc., a nonprofit in St. Louis. Freeman held the position at Grace Hill for six years before being named to lead the Department of Social Services in December.

Brian Kinkade, the deputy director of the agency, will serve as acting director when Freeman’s resignation takes effect May 31.

Freeman’s resignation comes less than a week after the agency announced the departure of Ian McCaslin as director of the state’s Medicaid health care program. Whether McCaslin resigned or was dismissed was never made clear by the Nixon administration, leaving some speculating that the two departures could be connected.

Yet Nixon gave no hint of acrimony on Monday.

“I greatly appreciate Alan’s leadership and service to the state of Missouri, and his tireless commitment to improving the health of Missouri’s most vulnerable citizens,” Nixon said in a statement. “Returning to Grace Hill will allow Alan to continue to serve our state and pursue his passion for providing quality, affordable health care to families in need.”

Department of Social Services officials did not respond to a request for further comment.

During Freeman’s tenure as director, the department has been criticized for how it has handled the release of records involving children who died or were seriously injured by abuse or neglect.

After years of routinely releasing records after child tragedies, the department ended that practice last year following the rescue of a malnourished and dehydrated Kansas City girl known as LP from a locked closet in late June. She had been placed under state supervision in 2006 and returned to her mother the next year.

Despite requests from The Kansas City Star, department officials refused for months to release information in that case and in several that followed. State law allows the release of information about a child death or near fatality, but the decision is at the sole discretion of the department’s director.

Most of those cases, along with the decision to deny access to the records, occurred before Freeman came on the job. In fact, they took place under the leadership of Kinkade, who served as acting director from June 2011 until Freeman’s appointment.

Legislative leaders argued that such information must be open so the community can better understand such tragedies and judge whether the child welfare system should have done more. They demanded that the department either release the records or provide a rationale for keeping them closed.

The department ultimately relented, and on Monday the records became public in the case of a 4-year-old Holt, Mo., boy who died in October after allegedly being kicked or struck in the abdomen.

Freeman’s resignation was greeted with shock by child welfare advocates and lawmakers.

“I didn’t see this coming at all,” said Debby Howland, chairwoman of the Kansas City Child Abuse Roundtable Coalition. “What makes me so sad about his resignation is that he seemed so sincerely committed to working with advocates at the local level.”

Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican who along with House Speaker Tim Jones had pressed the department in recent weeks to be more transparent, said he was surprised by Freeman’s departure.

“It’s a little bit of a shock to me,” he said.

Barnes said he didn’t know why Freeman resigned, but wondered if it was simply a matter of wanting to return to what he had done for years in the private sector.

“I wouldn’t blame him one bit if he decided that life as it was before was a lot better,” he said. “That would be a reasonable thing for a person with his background.”

As for the recent struggle with the department regarding releasing records, Howland said she is confident Kinkade will “do his best to improve transparency and openness. He’s committed to being more open in the future than maybe the department has been in the past.”