- Associated Press - Monday, January 5, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - A child welfare specialist who led an outside examination of the embattled state Department of Children and Families was named Monday by Gov.-elect Charlie Baker to run the agency in his new administration.

Linda Spears, vice president for policy, programs and public affairs for the Child Welfare League of America, will serve as commissioner of the department, Baker announced in a statement.

Gov. Deval Patrick had asked the organization to conduct a review of the agency following the disappearance of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy whose body was later found alongside a state highway. Three DCF employees were fired and a fourth disciplined after a state investigation revealed missed social worker visits and other failed opportunities to engage with Jeremiah’s family.

In its report, the Child Welfare League of America blamed officials for not doing enough to protect the boy, though it said the agency should not be held responsible for his death.

The report found that DCF was understaffed and its policies and protocols largely out of date, resulting in inconsistent handling of cases across regional offices.

The agency’s commissioner, Olga Roche, resigned in April under pressure from lawmakers, about a month before release of the CWLA report.

Marylou Sudders, secretary-designate for the office of Health and Human Services, said Spears had the skills and experience to “restore confidence in our child welfare system.”

Spears, who has been with CWLA for more than two decades, previously worked for the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, the forerunner of DCF. Baker oversaw the agency while serving as secretary of Health and Human Services under then-Gov. William Weld in the 1990s.

The incoming governor “understands that there is a tremendous task ahead to protect children and serve families in Massachusetts,” Spears said.

Peter MacKinnon, head of a state union that represents social workers, credited Spears with helping produce “a clear blueprint for reform and investment” at the agency. The union has demanded more staffing to lower caseloads for social workers.

Baker on Monday also named Francisco Urena, commissioner of veterans’ services for Boston, to serve as state secretary for Veterans’ Services.

Baker, a Republican, takes office on Thursday.

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