A Missouri mom says she is in an unfair battle with the state Children's Division as she tries to reunify with her children.

Jessie Lake of Columbia was notified in 2019 the state was moving to terminate her parental rights to her 2-year-old twin daughters.

The foster parents of the twins plan to adopt them, Lake said.

According to court documents Lake provided to the News-Leader, the foster mom is Jennifer Tidball, acting director of the Missouri Department of Social Services.

In that role, Tidball supervises the Children's Division.

Attorney Daniel Miller is representing the twins' biological father, who also does not want his rights terminated. Miller called the situation a "complete conflict" of interest.

"This is just wrong," Miller said. "If (Tidball) were not the director of the department, if she were somebody two or three steps down the chain, they would have probably been fired for this."

Three of Lake's four kids are in state custody: the twins are with the Tidballs and an older son is with a foster home in the St. Louis area. The fourth is living with his father in Arizona.

Lake's mom, Denise Lake, a nurse for more than 30 years, is also fighting to get guardianship of the twins.

"Jennifer Tidball has made it nearly impossible for me, a family member, any kinfolks to gain custody of my babies back," Jessie Lake said. "Everyone involved with this case, (Tidball) is their supervisor. I cannot get anyone to listen to me. I am desperate."

The News-Leader reached out to Tidball and the department’s communications office seeking an interview. The News-Leader also asked about the department's conflict of interest and ethics policy regarding employees becoming foster parents or pursuing adoption.

Special Counsel Sharie Hahn provided links to department policies regarding conflict of interest and code of conduct. She declined to answer any questions. Hahn said "the information you seek is closed."

The conflict of interest policy regarding "DSS staff as foster parents" reads:

Children's Division (CD) foster children may not be placed with DSS staff if such a placement constitutes a potential conflict of interest. The CD director or designee will determine whether DSS staff, both within CD and throughout the department, may qualify as foster parents.

Department spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel, in an email, declined to answer who decides whether a department employee qualifies to be a foster parent when that employee supervises the Children’s Division director.

Tidball, who began working for the department in 1995, has been deputy director since 2014. Gov. Mike Parson named Tidball acting director in May 2019. He has not submitted her name to the state Senate for confirmation as director.

Parson’s office declined to comment. In response to an inquiry, it stated: "It looks like the Department of Social Services provided you with all the necessary information."

So, is it a conflict of interest?

Richard Wexler, a child welfare advocate and the executive director for the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said he did not think it was appropriate for the head of the department to be fostering and/or pursuing adoption in a child welfare case.

"I have heard of cases in which there were blatant conflicts of interest involving case workers or their supervisors," Wexler said. "I've been doing this for 40 years and I have never heard of a situation in the country where children were taken from a mother and placed with the person in charge of the entire agency."

"How in the world does anybody expect these children to get a fair shake?" Wexler questioned. "You are not supposed to become head of a state social services agency or director to go and take custody of a poor person's kid for your very own."

Are they related?

According to Lake, she and Jennifer Tidball are not blood relatives but share a niece. Lake's late brother had a child with Tidball's sister.

Although they knew each other, Lake said she was not particularly close or familiar with the Tidball family.

Lake said they were once invited to the Tidball home for an Easter egg hunt.

A report titled "Termination of Parental Rights Investigation and Social Study" filed in Boone County on Jan. 15, characterizes the relationship differently.

"The twins are placed in the home of Kevin and Jennifer Tidball who are the aunt and uncle of Jessie's niece," the document states. "They had a relationship with Jessie and the kids prior to the kids coming into care and often spent holidays together. ..."

The report also asserts Lake contacted the Tidballs "asking them to take placement of the twins if they were to come into care."

The Easter egg hunt was the only time she and her kids were at the Tidball home on a holiday until after the children were placed in the Tidball home, Lake said.

Lake denied asking the Tidballs to take her kids if they came into care.

"That is a blatant lie. I never asked those people to take my children into their care. That doesn't make sense," Lake said. "It would not have been appropriate to say, 'Hey, if my kids were taken into care, will you take them?'"

"I'm not comfortable with those people like that," she added. "They were almost strangers to me."

Denise Lake, the twins' grandmother, said when the children were first taken into state custody she was planning to leave on a trip for Italy the next day. She said she offered to cancel her trip and take the kids, but was told, "No, there is no reason to do that."

Denise Lake said she's since tried to get guardianship but was denied. She is appealing the decision.

"I have not been allowed to see any of my grandchildren for a year without any type of supervision," Denise Lake said. "I don't have a criminal record. I don't even have a speeding ticket. I'm clean as a whistle."

Denise Lake said she has spent more than $10,000 in attorney fees.

She called the legal battle a "nightmare" and said she doesn't understand why she was not given guardianship.

"There's no reason why I couldn't do that," Denise Lake said. "I've worked the same job for 33 years. I'm their grandmother. I'm financially stable. I have a home. I have a fenced yard and three bedrooms."

According to Missouri law, grandparents are supposed to receive first preference in foster placements. Then come adult siblings or parents of siblings, third are relatives like aunts, uncles or cousins and then more distant relatives. If there are no relatives, the child is placed with a licensed foster family.

Jessie Lake and Jennifer Tidball share a niece.

Wexler said that "reinforces" his view that it's a "blatant conflict-of-interest."

"The fact that there is some distant relationship between Ms. (Tidball) and the children might be the legal technicality she needs to get around the preference to place with relatives," Wexler said in the email, "but morally, it's obscene."

"While she is not the judge’s boss, she’s everyone else’s boss," Wexler said, "and that means it is improper for her to become a foster parent to any child except a genuine close relative, and even then only with the clear, unambiguous consent of the birth parent."

'No one is checking on it ...'

Jessie Lake, 36, said that although she has a history of substance abuse, she's never physically abused or neglected her children.

Lake said there have been times she didn't follow through with therapy. Though Lake said she is clean now, she knows she will be in recovery all of her life. She is in counseling and says Narcotics Anonymous and group meetings have been a "huge support."

Being separated from her children has sometimes made it difficult to maintain her sobriety, she said.

"Really, just learning to keep living, learning to live without my children," Lake said. "It's been two years, and I swear to you every day is like trying to find my identity again. It's terrible."

The documents Lake provided say she has criminal convictions.

Lake called that "a blatant lie" and said she feels it's another example of her case not being treated fairly.

According to online court records, she has two traffic tickets and a misdemeanor charge of operating a vehicle without a valid license and failure to register a vehicle.

Miller, the attorney representing the children's father, also took issue with the error.

"You can make mistakes with regard to pleadings. But whenever you have something that is that important, I'd really like for you to be accurate," Miller said. "It's either the sloppiest handled case known to mankind or there is deliberate malfeasance."

"There's been no showing that she in any way abused the kids or that they were ever in danger," Miller continued. "This beats the hell out of anything that I've ever seen."

Jessie Lake said that in 2018, a juvenile court judge ordered her to go to the Women's Program at Turning Point Recovery Center in Hannibal.

She was allowed to bring her children, but said it was not a good place for the kids. The twins were beginning to crawl, Lake said, and it was difficult for her to work on her recovery while keeping tabs on her three small children.

"I felt like I was set up to fail," Lake said. "It was terrible."

Lake said she left after about five days. She said she intended to find a treatment facility closer to home where relatives could help with the kids.

The day after she returned to Columbia, caseworkers came to Lake's home and took the children.

Her then-5-year-old son was sent to live with his father in Arizona. The twins, barely a year old, went into foster care — the Tidballs’ home in Columbia.

At first, Lake said she was relieved because Lake knew the Tidballs had a nice home and stable family.

Her eldest son, then age 11, was also initially placed in the Tidball home, Lake said. Prior to that, he had been in state custody due to behavioral issues.

Lake admitted herself into a treatment center in Columbia and completed a 31-day program.

Not long after being placed in the Tidball home, the older boy was arrested at school and sent by the court to a residential facility, Lake said. He was there for about a year and a half before being placed in a foster home.

Wexler took issue with that move, too, saying Tidball is "setting a poor example as a foster parent."

"She keeps the cute babies, but kicks out the older boy as soon as he gets into trouble," Wexler said in an email. "There is no excuse for using group homes and institutions on almost any child, but especially children under 13. How is Ms. (Tidball) supposed to lead the fight against institutionalizing young children ... when she's just done it herself?"

That boy is now in a foster home near St. Louis and is thriving, Jessie Lake said. She said she visits and calls him often and has a wonderful relationship with the foster mother, who will soon become that boy's guardian.

According to Denise Lake, the grandmother, when she went to court to gain guardianship of the twins, the caseworker testified in court that Denise was not involved with the twins and that she didn't take Jessie Lake's addiction seriously.

"That made me so mad," Denise Lake said. "I buried a child from addiction. For her to say that in court, that I didn't take this seriously ..."

In recent months, Jessie Lake said she feels like no one is noting her progress or communicating with her. Recently she was notified her caseworker is no longer with the Children's Division. She said she was contacted last week by her new caseworker, who didn't ask any questions about how or what she was doing.

She has a written service agreement, a contract that details the steps Lake needs to take to be reunified with her children.

"Every single one of them down the list, I am doing," she said. "I'm working all the steps and no one is checking on it or holding me accountable."

"I feel great. I look great. And I'm ready to fight," Lake said. "But I think they are going to do everything in their power to see I don’t get my babies back."

In her response to the News-Leader, DSS Special Counsel Sharie Hann wrote:

"It is important to know that the child welfare system involves multiple agencies, not under the purview of the Department of Social Services, independently advocating on behalf of different parties, such as the Juvenile Office, guardians ad litem, court appointed special advocates, and others. The judge presiding over a child's case makes the ultimate decisions regarding removal, placement, reunification, and termination of parental rights."

Jessie Lake is scheduled to be in juvenile court in Boone County in May, but anticipates the termination of parental rights hearing may be postponed again due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jessie and Denise Lake are both concerned that Jessie's parental rights will be terminated before the appeals court will hear Denise Lake's case.