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Patrick replaces head of troubled agency

Governor Deval Patrick has announced the appointment of several new top state officials, including a replacement to head the troubled Department of Social Services. WBUR'S health and science reporter Allan Coukell has more.TEXT OF STORY

ALLAN COUKELL: Harry Spence, the outgoing DSS Commissioner is one of several Republican appointees whose status has been uncertain for some time.

D.S.S. has been a focus of controversy because of the recent deaths of several children in its care. But Governor Patrick yesterday said Harry Spence had done a "very, very good job"

GOVERNOR PATRICK: For every tragedy, there are dozens of success stories at DSS. It is a very hard assignment. This is not about anyone's failure.

COUKELL: Patrick said the new appointment was a normal part of the transition to a new administration. Others echoed the governor's praise for the outgoing commissioner.

Jetta Bernier leads the advocacy group Massachusetts Citizens for Children.

JETTA BERNIER: I think it is a sad day in the Commonwealth because Harry Spence is leaving DSS. I think he has been a dedicated and visionary steward of the Department of Social Services and has been a true advocate for abused and neglected children across the state.

COUKELL: After the near-fatal beating two years ago of Haleigh Poutre, an 11-year-old Westfield girl, DSS was criticized for failing to prevent the abuse and for prematurely seeking to withdraw life support. Two panels investigated that incident and made recommendations.

Spence says he was 'startled' not to be reappointed, and sorry he won't be able to finish implementing those reforms.

HARRY SPENCE: We've got five years of work we'd laid out ahead of us for shifting from an individual social worker process to teams of social workers working together - essentially creating what we think is a 21st century model of child welfare practice.

COUKELL: Spence said he hopes that work will continue. His successor, Angelo McClain, gave few details yesterday about his plans for the department, but stressed the importance of close coordination between different government agencies.

That's something he's experienced as executive director of Value Options New Jersey, a company that provides social services under contract to the state.

ANGELO McCLAIN: One of the things that attracted me to the New Jersey project was it was that it was a project where child welfare, child mental health, juvenile justice and Medicaid were coming together to try to make a unified system.

COUKELL: McClain is no stranger to Massachusetts. He attended Boston College and worked over fifteen years as a social worker in several private and state agencies.

But McClain's says his history with social work goes back further than that — to when he was a teenager, running around and getting into trouble, in Kansas City, Missouri.

McCLAIN: And my mother thought if I was going to have a chance of being a decent human being, I needed to get out of the inner city.

COUKELL: She sent him to a group home outside of Amarillo, Texas — a place called Cal Farley's Boy's Ranch, where he spent five years.

McCLAIN: And through that experience I got a lot of help from a lot of people. And when I was talking to some college football recruiters — and I eventually went on to play college football - they asked me what I wanted to major in. and I said, 'I don't know.' And then when I thought about it, I said 'maybe social work — it would be a chance to help some people.'

COUKELL: As the new DSS Commissioner, McClain will certainly have that chance. He expects to be on the job in four weeks. For WBUR, I'm Allan Coukell.BACK TAG:
Other appointments yesterday included Elin Howe, as Commissioner of the Department of Mental Retardation. She formerly held a similar position in New York State.

Patrick also announced that Westfield mayor Richard Sullivan will head the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

This program aired on May 24, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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