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Agency has been under fire
since parents accused of killing Hull girl

Associated Press

BOSTON - The embattled head of the state’s child welfare system is resigning five months after his agency was criticized for its action - or lack of action - in the death of a 4-year-old girl in Hull.
Lewis “Harry” Spence
Lewis “Harry” Spence

Lewis “Harry” Spence, commissioner of the Department of Social Services since 2001, has been under fire for the agency’s handling of the Hull case in which the parents of the dead girl are charged with killing her with an overdose of prescription drugs.

He also has been criticized for the department’s handling of another high-profile child-abuse case involving a comatose child from Westfield.

Gov. Deval Patrick plans to replace Spence with Angelo McClain, a former DSS worker who now works for ValueOptions, a New Jersey-based health care company, according to a person with direct knowledge of the decision.

Patrick planned to announced Spence’s departure today along with other changes in top positions, a source told The Associated Press.

Spence did not return calls to his cell phone seeking comment.

The DSS has come under increasing scrutiny after the cases of Rebecca Riley, 4, whose parents are accused of killing her in December at home in Hull, and Haleigh Poutre, taken to a hospital with severe brain injuries in 2005 when she was 11.

Haleigh allegedly was beaten into a coma by her adoptive parents in 2005 after DSS decided against taking her away from the couple despite the Westfield girl’s history of previous injuries. DSS received court permission to remove Haleigh from life support, but when doctors said she showed signs of improvement she was moved to a rehabilitation hospital, where she remains. The state was criticized for moving too quickly to end life support.

In the case of Rebecca Riley, DSS had investigated the family in October, and determined that the child was safe. The agency tried to make a subsequent home visit in late November, but was turned away. The agency on Dec. 12 decided to make a surprise visit, but Rebecca died the next day before the visit could take place.

Gov. Deval Patrick announces changes

Rebecca’s parents are in custody awaiting trial for first-degree murder.

DSS spokeswoman Denise Monteiro did not return a calls seeking information about what was happening in the department. She earlier said that Spence wanted to stay on the job to follow through on reforms he’s overseen in the past five years. More bilingual and multicultural workers have been hired, for example.

Patrick declined last month to publicly support Spence for re-appointment, saying he would rely on his Cabinet secretaries to make decisions, although he said he had veto power.

Patrick had praised Spence for his work helping immigrant families caught up in a March 6 federal immigration raid at a New Bedford factory.

A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Spence was the director of the Boston Housing Authority while it was under receivership in the early 1980s. He ran the city of Chelsea when that city declared financial bankruptcy and was placed in receivership. From 1995 to 2000, he was the deputy chancellor for operations for the New York City public schools.