Molly McGrath Tierney, a fierce child-welfare advocate, announced Friday that she will resign as director of the Baltimore Department of Social Services after nine years with the agency.
Tierney announced her resignation in an email to staff, but offered no explanation. Reached by phone Friday afternoon, Tierney declined to discuss her decision.
The influential Department of Social Services administers a range of public-assistance programs — everything from foster care to food stamps — and also investigates cases of child abuse.
"I have been proud to be a part of the team that reinvented BCDSS into the caring and thoughtful organization that it is today," Tierney wrote in the email to staff. One in three Baltimore residents receives assistance from the department, she wrote.
Jointly appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Tierney led the department since 2007 and developed a reputation as a passionate reformer of foster care. She has the phrase"Fear Less" tattooed on her knuckles. Her impassioned speech about foster care reform at TED Talks in 2014 earned her a standing ovation from the crowd in Baltimore.
"I was a believer in fixing things and I came to Baltimore; that was back when the agency that I run now was considered the worst in the country, but I just knew we could make it work — and we have had a good run," she told the audience.
In five years, she said the number of city children in foster care declined nearly 60 percent. Further, adoptions increased nearly 60 percent in those years. Still, she warned that placing a child in foster care may cause more harm.
"When we also take them from their families, we're digging a wound so deep I don't believe we have a way of measuring it," she said. "This dismantling of families, it has enormous consequences."
Tierney advocated for early intervention to help struggling parents raise their own children.
"It could mean that foster care would become an intervention that was rare and brief and would wreak less havoc in our communities," she said.
Her brash style, however, drew some criticism. At least two complaints were made last year to the city's Office of Inspector General and the Maryland Attorney General's Office about her handling of child welfare cases.Tierney has declined to comment, saying she is bound by privacy laws. State officials have said they cannot confirm or deny any investigation of those complaints.
The state agency has not yet named Tierney's successor, spokeswoman Katherine Morris said. She said the date of Tierney's departure has not yet been set.
Tierney earned a salary of $126,000 from the state and $30,000 from the city in fiscal year 2016.
"We remain steadfast in our commitment to serving Baltimore City's most vulnerable residents," Morris wrote in an email. "The Department of Human Services is moving swiftly, and with great care and consideration, to evaluate and identify the appropriate person to serve as Acting Director."
Tierney's program to send children to a private academy in Philadelphia to earn a high school diploma after a three-hour exam drew criticism in 2013 after a Baltimore Sun investigation. Colleges rejected the diplomas as invalid and an accrediting body concluded the school was a "diploma mill."
Kevin Lindamood, president of Baltimore nonprofit Health Care for the Homeless, said he admired Tierney's refusal to be satisfied with the status quo.
"Whenever you have someone who's willing to challenge the status quo, who's willing to rattle the cages of the bureaucracy, I think you're going to have some detractors … also some who appreciate the commitment and recognize the changes that are made to better serve people."