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“I don’t want to do personnel in the press. I’m very concerned about the Rebecca Riley case.”

Harry Spence,
DSS commissioner
Will DSS chief keep his job
in wake of Hull girl’s death?

Patrick is noncommittal about Spence’s future

Associated Press

BOSTON - The drug overdose death of 4-year-old Rebecca Riley of Hull is once again focusing attention on the Department of Social Services and provoking questions about the future of its commissioner, Lewis “Harry” Spence.

The commissioner serves at the pleasure of the governor. The state’s new chief executive, Deval Patrick, has been decidedly noncommittal when asked if he will reappoint Spence to the position he has held for just over five years.

Harry Spence, Massachusetts DSS commissioner
AMELIA KUNHARDT/The Patriot Ledger
Harry Spence, Massachusetts DSS commissioner

“I don’t want to do personnel in the press. I’m very concerned about the Rebecca Riley case. I’m concerned about whether the recommendations that were brought forward after the Haleigh Poutre case were actually implemented,” Patrick said, referring to another case of child abuse for which the DSS came under intense criticism.

Last week, Spence defended the DSS performance in the Riley case, saying his agency appropriately consulted with doctors about the hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder drugs prescribed for the little girl.

“This child didn’t fall through the cracks,” Spence said after Rebecca’s parents were arrested on charges of intentionally giving her an overdose of clonidine.

Spence declined through a spokeswoman to comment for this story.

“He’s really not comfortable speaking publicly until he is reappointed or not reappointed. He’s a little worried about that,” said DSS spokeswoman Denise Monteiro. “He has started a complete turnover of DSS and is trying to create a system that actually fits communities and families,” Monteiro said. “He wants another five years to complete the job.”

Spence has been the focus of public outrage over several high-profile cases of child abuse. In the Poutre case, a young girl was beaten into a coma, allegedly by her parents, and then was nearly removed from life support by DSS just before her condition began to improve. A 4-year-old boy, Dontel Jeffers, was beaten to death in a foster home chosen by DSS.

Spence has acknowledged that tragic stories grab the public’s attention, but constitute only a minute percentage of the 28,000 cases the agencies is involved in.

Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, R-Wakefield, said DSS often is unfairly blamed when cases such as the one involving Riley emerge.

DSS does “an awful lot to protect kids on a day-to-day basis. It’s impossible for DSS to know everything that’s going on in every family,” he said.

Rep. Stephen LeDuc, D-Marlboro, vice chairman of the House Committee on Children and Families, was not as charitable to Spence.

“I think we’re all rooting for him. But I don’t think changes are happening fast enough on his watch,” he said. “He still might be the right guy. People aren’t exactly lining up to take the job. It’s one of the toughest jobs in the state.”