New director of the Missouri Children’s Division: ‘I think our child welfare system can always get better’

Tim Decker, the newly appointed director of the Missouri Children’s Division, talked to The Kansas City Star on Dec. 12.

Decker, who succeeded Candace Shively as the agency’s director, previously was director of the Missouri Division of Youth Services, which is considered a national model for juvenile custody systems.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q. Are you concerned right now with the state of child welfare in Missouri? A.

I think our child welfare system can always get better. I think it’s going to take a collective effort of the state working with our many partners, families, young people and communities to really accomplish our core mission, which is to ensure that children are safe and that young people are moving on to healthy and safe and prosperous futures.

Q. In the last two years, nearly 200 people have left the Children’s Division office in Jackson County, many of them with years and years of experience. Are you confident of the leadership here in Kansas City? A.

My preliminary assessment of the leadership, and I emphasize preliminary, has generally been positive in that we have some experienced leaders who are knowledgeable and are being very methodical about how they are addressing some of these challenges. … So before I offer an assessment, I sure need to hear from a lot more people. But I do know we have profound challenges there.

Quite frankly, I need to get out and talk to more people before I complete my assessment and figure out what else we need to do there. … LINC (Local Investment Commission) years ago had a Walk in My Shoes campaign. I plan on doing that in our agency. I want to get out and I want to go with workers as they do investigations and … really experience what the workers are experiencing firsthand in the community, what our partners are experiencing firsthand.

Q. Ten years ago, after a death in Springfield of a little boy in foster care, there was a cry for change and there were task forces and laws and vows that we’re going to make the system better. Some of those changes did occur. But many say that the system is not much further along. Do you think money is part of this? Are you going to work with the legislature to get more money, to get better pay for workers? A.

Coming from a sister division, I’m impressed that the legislature really invested the money and the executive branch carried out the accreditation process. … Certainly, resources are something that will have to be assessed over time. I don’t have an immediate answer to that. We’re looking at all aspects of the system.

Q. In the preliminary reports from the Council on Accreditation, some of the main concerns are high caseloads, high turnover and lack of education among the supervisors and workers. How do you address those issues? A.

Certainly, the quality of our outcomes is going to be impacted by the quality and performance of our staff. So we definitely have to focus there, and I think we’re going to need to meet with the universities, we’re going to have to do all kinds of work to boost the education of our staff.

The other thing, and we found this with DYS … we were able to develop very robust training and coaching programs that led to very successful performance, and even in an era of high turnover. We’re going to have to really invest in that.