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Parson is replacing leader of Missouri’s child advocacy agency

Schultz has led the Office of Child Advocate since 2011; her last day is Nov. 30

After 10 years leading the state agency that investigates complaints against Missouri’s Children’s Division, Kelly Schultz’s final day on the job will be Nov. 30. 

Kelly Schultz

In an interview Wednesday morning, Schultz would not comment on the circumstances behind her sudden departure or on who Gov. Mike Parson has chosen to replace her as director of the Office of Child Advocate. She was originally appointed to the position in 2011 and has served through three administrations.

“I love the Office of Child Advocate and its mission and I wish nothing but success for the next director,” Schultz said. 

Kelli Jones, spokeswoman for the governor’s office, did not respond to a request for comment. Several people with knowledge of the decision say they expect the governor to announce that state Rep. Becky Ruth will take over the job from Schultz. 

Ruth, a real estate agent and retired teacher from Jefferson County, could not be immediately reached for comment. The director position pays about $75,000 a year. 

The leadership change comes at a time when the state’s department of social services, which oversees the Children’s Division, is facing intense scrutiny from lawmakers.

On Tuesday, the department’s acting director, Robert Knodell, told a legislative committee that his agency is facing challenges “that cannot wait.” 

The department has faced withering criticism in recent months over its handling of allegations of abuse and neglect at unlicensed boarding schools and its failure to notify authorities when foster children are reported missing.

Schultz has raised public concerns about the department, saying last month that “a perfect storm” of factors have contributed to where the department is today, including a high turnover rate of department directors, changes in the department’s models, the pandemic, and budget cuts.

“Candidly speaking,” Schultz said last month, “I think we have an agency in duress.”

During an interview Wednesday morning, Schultz said she was happy that there would be a transition period where she can work with the new director before leaving Nov. 30.

“I’ve been in this Capitol since 1999, and executive transitions are unfortunately something that state government doesn’t get right a lot of the time,” she said. “I’m very happy that there is a transition.”

Sudden, usually unexplained, departures have become commonplace in Parson’s administration over the last year, with three cabinet members being dismissed without warning or public explanation since April. Just last month, the head of the Office of Administration, which oversees state contracting and purchasing, was asked to resign effective immediately.

Rep. Keri Ingle, a Lee’s Summit Democrat and former children’s division investigator, said the state was lucky to have had Schultz in the Office of Child Advocate for the last decade. 

“I am so grateful for the years she has dedicated her life to the betterment of all Missouri children,” she said. “Her legacy is going to be the work she’s done to improve the child welfare system and make sure the kids of Missouri are safe.” 

There is a lot of turmoil within the department of social services, Ingle said, making it a difficult time to change leaders in such an important office. 

“But there really isn’t ever a perfect time for this type of change,” Ingle said. “I am looking forward to working with the new director.”

Jessica Seitz, the executive director of Missouri KidsFirst, an advocacy organization that represents child advocacy centers across the state, said Schultz brought a level of expertise to the job that will be hard to replace.

 “It’s an incredibly important office,” she said, “and any change is a big deal.”

There are “a lot of improvements in our laws that can be credited to her tenure,” Seitz said. 

Schultz, who declined to say what she planned to do next, said she was proud of the things the office had accomplished during her time in the job. 

“I love the Office of Child Advocate with all of my heart.”

This article by Jason Hancock of The Missouri Independent is published by permission.

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