Man in the Middle

Date: 2006-06-25

Harry Spence's handling of the high-profile death of one child and the beating of another made him a target for critics of the state's social services. Five years into his term, his plan for reform is hardly quieting those opponents.

James Sullivan
June 25, 2006

Harry Spence has been a reluctant newsmaker lately. The commissioner of the state Department of Social Services was at the center of the case of Haleigh Poutre, an 11-year-old DSS charge who fell into a coma last September after allegedly being beaten by her adoptive mother and stepfather. The DSS, citing medical experts, advocated taking her off life support but was challenged by her stepfather. (Poutre remains under medical care.) Spence, 59, has also been criticized for what some perceive to be a hasty shift in emphasis from so-called residential care - abused or neglected kids being removed to group homes - to "community-based" care, which places children with extended family or foster and adoptive families in their home communities. Opponents of that shift point to Poutre's case and that of 4-year-old Dontel Jeffers, who died last year after being abused while in foster care. Spence, who led the Boston Housing Authority out of receivership in the 1980s, hears his critics, but they are not slowing him down.

Are you moving full steam ahead with the so-called Family Networks system [the DSS plan to accelerate DSS charges' transfer from residential to community-based care]?

We are. "Full steam ahead" means in the same way that we've always been doing it, which is making an assessment child by child, trying to keep children connected to their community whenever we can, so long as we can do it safely. Right now we're at a period where we're actually increasing the number of kids in residential care. It varies seasonally. Our goal, over a period of several years, is to find the right place for as many kids as possible to be supported in community and have the best chance of returning home to their parents or getting adopted or guardianship. It's really a philosophy, not a program.

Do you think that's one of the misperceptions?

Well, [critics] forget. They act as though we're just beginning to have kids live in the community. We have 8,500 kids living in community - we have for years - and 2,500 kids in residential. The question is, can we move that line to 8,600 kids in community and 2,400 in residential? We're trying to keep expanding our capacities to support these kids in ways that hold hope for them, instead of condemning them to become lost souls.

When you took this job in 2001, did you envision any worst-case scenarios?

When you start working in child welfare, everyone says, "It's just a matter of time before you will be dealing with a very high-profile case." There's nothing you can do to avoid it.

Has Haleigh's case muted the enthusiasm you might have had for reforming the department?

No, I would say the opposite. Child welfare commissioners tend to think, "How do I stay out of trouble?" What I've realized is child welfare work is immersed in trouble. We're working with 40,000 families that are the most distressed families in the state, with the kids who have suffered the most severe trauma. That's the nature of the work. And if that's the nature of it, all the more reason to get at it.

Some have criticized you for adding more bureaucracy to DSS and dispersing responsibility. Fair charge?

The only change we've made - we haven't made any in the structure of the department. We reorganized how the assistant commissioners were titled and so on, but the staff is exactly the same size as when I started. What we have done is, there used to be what were called "lead agencies" in different programs. There were two great big ones and others. We've consolidated that. So we actually have reduced the leads - nonprofits that work with us to administer the system and support social workers.

What do you see when you look at Boston today?

I see a city that is flourishing in many ways, but I also see a city that is no longer home to anywhere near the number of poor people as it used to be. And I look at a state where the problems that used to be Boston's are now the problems of Springfield, Lawrence and Lowell, New Bedford and Fall River. It used to be that the wealthy lived on the outskirts of the city and the poor lived in the inner city. Boston is one of the first cities in America to have completely flipped that pattern.

At one point you called the [Boston] school superintendent's job your "dream job."

Probably when I was applying to be school superintendent.

Then you went to the New York education department. What did you bring back?

I came back with a deep appreciation for the politics and civic life of Boston. New York has a brutal, dog-eat-dog political and civic life - the war of one against all. In Boston, there are long-term alliances. I was homesick for 41/2 years in New York. It's a joy to be in a city that, while I wasn't born here, I realize is now deep in my bones.

I've read that you meditate. How do you apply that to public life?

Public life is constantly buffeting. When I was in New York, I said to my wife, "Why do I do work where I have to be involved in fighting constantly, when I don't relish fighting?" Meditation practice helps me . . . to keep from getting emotionally hooked, I hope, in the fights, so that I lose perspective on the long-term task.

Your youngest daughter is 10. How has DSS work shaped your approach to parenting?

I would say my parenting of all three of my children constantly reminds me that parenting is the hardest job in the world. It forces me to recognize how much help all of us need to do it well.


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