boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Spence sought to stay at DSS

Child advocate's tenure beset by tragedies

HARRY SPENCE Headed DSS for 5 1/2 years. (PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF)

Harry Spence, replaced yesterday as commissioner of the state Department of Social Services, has spent most of his adult life in public service helping the poor and fixing one broken government agency after another. For the past 5 1/2 years at the helm of DSS, he has drawn widespread praise as a zealous advocate for vulnerable children.

Still, some child welfare advocates say, Spence's boundless passion was not enough for him to keep the job that he described yesterday as "the most important, rewarding, and difficult" he has ever had.

The 60-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer wanted more time leading DSS and submitted a written application to Governor Deval Patrick earlier this month. Spence said he was startled when he learned Tuesday night that he was being ousted.

Announcing 11 new high-level appointees yesterday, Patrick said that Angelo McClain, executive director of a New Jersey healthcare company, would take over as the new DSS commissioner in one month.

Patrick said the change was not because of Spence's performance, but because he wanted his own leadership group. Spence, who DSS said was making $130,000 a year, was appointed in 2001 by Acting Governor Jane M. Swift after his predecessor became a judge.

"I think that Harry has done a very, very good job under very difficult circumstances," Patrick said at a press conference yesterday. "For every tragedy, there are dozens of success stories at DSS. It is a very hard assignment."

But many longtime child advocates see Spence's ouster as a sign that he was unfairly and exclusively blamed for some tragedies on his watch.

There was 4-year-old Dontel Jeffers, who authorities say died at the hands of his Dorchester foster mother in 2005. There was Haleigh Poutre, a 13-year-old girl now in a Brighton rehabilitation center who suffered a brutal beating by her adoptive mother who was under DSS supervision. Soon after DSS obtained a court order to withdraw her life support in January 2006, she started breathing on her own. And there was Rebecca Riley, a 4-year-old girl who authorities say was given a fatal overdose of psychotropic medications in December by her Hull parents, who had been under DSS watch.

Those cases generated some strong criticism of Spence, including from Susan Molina, head of the Yellow Ribbon Kids Club, a foster care advocacy group in Whitman. She described Spence's dismissal as long overdue, largely because of his agency's handling of Poutre's case.

Spence has long complained that the public pays attention to DSS and other child welfare agencies only in the rare cases when they fail to protect children. He has praised social workers for persevering and continuing to help families. "I have tremendous faith in the commitment of this organization to go forward," he said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Other observers say Spence's record must be put in perspective. However tragic these cases are, the total number of abuse or neglect deaths of children under DSS care during Spence's tenure has declined compared with the 1990s, said Ed Malloy, head of one of the largest unions representing DSS workers.

Several child-welfare specialists say that DSS has the impossible task of overseeing the safety of 40,000 abused or neglected children, including 10,000 youngsters in foster care or residential facilities. The public cannot expect a 100 percent safety rate, they say, when government money to help poor families is limited and when families can be unpredictable, irrational, and sometimes violent.

"There's unrealistic expectations on the part of the public," said Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, a nonprofit group that works to reduce child abuse.

Mary Lou Sudders, head of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and former commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, said Spence's downfall was more than just politicians and the public blaming Spence for some deaths.

She said Spence's strengths as a communicator and visionary were not always accompanied by the ability to achieve his goals or to keep up with nuts-and-bolts details. For example, his ambitious effort to reduce the number of children in long-term residential care facilities and place them in community-based foster homes was met with enthusiasm, until logistical snags emerged. "You have to rally people around implementation," Sudders said.

She and others, however, said Spence instituted many far- reaching changes, including new educational initiatives to prevent shaken-baby deaths and strong professional development programs for social workers. They also credited him with keeping children with their families and using foster homes only as a last resort to ensure safety and with securing new funds to help foster children who, because they turned 18, were no longer entitled to many child-protection services.

One longtime social worker said she appreciated that Spence did not immediately blame rank-and-file social workers whenever a high-profile tragedy occurred, as many child welfare officials do.

"The easiest thing to do is blame," said Hilary Bruce, 31, a social worker and supervisor for nine years with DSS. "He would look deeper on how we could learn from the experiences."

Spence, who looked like a Yankee patrician but sometimes acted like a rebel, could be testy at press conferences when he thought he or his staff were being unfairly criticized. He was also a strong advocate of cultural and racial sensitivity in the agency.

A few years ago, while attending a national conference of child welfare specialists in Florida, he looked visibly grim. During one break, he stood up and said, "Can you believe how white this group is?"

Spence said he does not know what he will do next. His resume includes running housing authorities in Cambridge and Somerville, as well as helping Chelsea and the Boston Housing Authority rebound from financial problems and serving as deputy chancellor of the New York City public schools. His many successes led one magazine to headline a profile with "Is Harry Spence God?"

He plans to stay in Massachusetts, because his wife teaches in Cambridge and he has a 11-year-old daughter in school. "I thought I'd be able to stay, but keeping this job was not in the cards," he said. "I'm fascinated to see what the cards hold for me."

Lisa Wangsness of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES