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DHR director set aside law plans for social work

By Paul Huggins
DAILY Staff Writer 340-2395

The law degree she promised her mother still eludes Tonita Phipps, and her mother will simply have to wait longer now that Phipps is the new director of the Morgan County Department of Human Resources.

"I haven't given it up, but it will be hard to do that and run an agency at the same time," said Phipps, who took over her new role Oct. 1.

Phipps comes to Decatur after 12 years with the Madison County DHR, where she was assistant director of child welfare since 2001. She replaces Larry Ayers, who retired.

The 40-year-old Huntsville native has worked in Decatur before, serving two years at Lurleen B. Wallace Developmental Center in the late 1980s. She left Wallace in 1990 to get her master's degree in social work at Boston University.

She said her strengths include her experience in child welfare, where she worked from the ground up, so she understands every aspect: investigations, protective services, foster care and day-care licensing.

She will have to learn the other DHR services involving food stamps, child support and jobs programs.

In Morgan County, she will oversee a staff of 75 — 15 fewer people than she supervised in child welfare in Madison County.

Phipps originally studied political science while attending Alabama A&M and had aspirations of being a lawyer when she switched to social work.

"Well, with political science you have a lot of history, and I got kind of bored and looked for an area that would really interest me," she said.

Social work appealed to her naturally, she said, and as the middle child growing up, she was the one trying to help everybody.

"You have to have a calling for it," Phipps said.

"You don't do it for the money. You don't always see the reward you would like to see. And we're not always recognized for the good things that we do ... so you have to look at the differences you make in a child's life."

Phipps, who minored in criminal justice in college, said the investigative side of child welfare also drew her to the profession.

She thinks she would make a good private investigator when she retires.

But she'll have to do that after she gets her law degree. It's a promise she aims to keep, even though her mother doesn't bring it up anymore.

"She's happy as long as she knows I'm happy and sees the rewards I've achieved in this field," Phipps said.

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