Governor Deval Patrick appointed a longtime state transportation official Tuesday to replace the commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families, which has been in turmoil following the recent deaths of three children.
Erin Deveney, a lawyer who has spent most of the last decade at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, will take over DCF following the resignation Tuesday of Olga I. Roche, who had been facing calls to step down from the House speaker, the Senate president, and the attorney general.
Deveney, 41, has no experience in child welfare issues, but developed a reputation as a hard-working manager who helped modernize the Registry’s computer system, allowing drivers to renew licenses and registrations online.
She said she was humbled by the challenge she faces as interim commissioner. Deveney came to DCF less than a month ago to fill a newly created position, deputy commissioner of operations.
“In the brief time I’ve been at DCF, I’ve learned to appreciate the magnitude and complexity of the work that is done in serving these children and families on a daily basis,” she said, reading from a prepared statement. “In the period of transition that will follow at DCF, I will ensure the agency’s top priority continues to be ensuring and protecting the children of the Commonwealth. We must not waver in that obligation.”
The agency is facing its own problems with technology, but also more basic questions about its competence following a case in which staff failed to perform required monthly visits to a child under its watch, and a case in which the agency misplaced a faxed report of possible harm to an infant. DCF, which is responsible for the protection of 36,000 children, has also been hampered by low morale, crushing caseloads, and a loss of public confidence.
“It is a very, very high-risk move changing out leadership in this circumstance,” Patrick said at a press conference with Deveney.
He indicated he was making the decision reluctantly, after months of defending Roche against mounting criticism. Patrick had appointed Roche interim DCF commissioner in April 2013 and permanent commissioner in October. She made $138,000 a year.
“With some 33 years of experience in social services, Commissioner Roche has the expertise to lead this agency,” the governor said. “But it is clear . . . that she can no longer command the trust of the public or the confidence of her line staff.”
Patrick said he would look for a permanent commissioner, which could be Deveney if she proves effective in helping to stabilize DCF. Roche, who did not release any statement Tuesday, is expected to remain at the department for several weeks, helping with the transition.
Child welfare specialists said it would be very difficult to find a seasoned professional to take the role of permanent commissioner, since Patrick’s term ends in January and the next governor is expected to name his or her own agency heads.
“It’s an eight-month job at best,” said Randall Whittle, a retired longtime administrator for the Brockton-based regional office of DCF. “Who would want to run the agency?”
DCF has been under intense criticism since acknowledging in December that it had lost track of a Fitchburg preschooler who was under DCF watch but had not been visited since April 2013. His body was found April 18 by the side of a highway in Sterling.
On Saturday, the agency acknowledged it misplaced a fax sent April 3 from the Grafton police warning of possible harm to a 1-month-old infant. The fax was not discovered until April 9. Two days later, the infant died. Also Saturday, a Fitchburg newborn died after her family missed a scheduled visit from DCF.
Into this tumultuous situation comes Deveney, a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and Suffolk Law School who worked at the Registry from 2000 to 2005, and then again from 2009 until last month, most recently serving as chief of staff.
She has also worked as chief of staff to the mayor of Everett, as general counsel of the state Criminal History Systems Board, and as an aide to James Fagan when he was a Democratic state representative from Taunton.
Former bosses said Deveney has a reputation as an indefatigable manager who puts in long work days and extra hours after returning home to Taunton.
“She eats, sleeps, and lives her job,” said Everett’s mayor, Carlo DeMaria Jr., who hired Deveney as his chief of staff from 2008 to 2009.
Secretary of Transportation Richard A. Davey said one of Deveney’s chief functions at the Registry was helping to modernize computer systems to assist drivers with online registrations and other services, which would cut waiting times at Registry offices. He described her as calm and “100 percent dependable.”
Even with her managerial skills, some longtime child advocates say, she faces a major challenge to learn the regulations and laws related to child-protection systems, as well as gaining the trust of social workers and clinicians who realize she has little background in protecting abused and neglected children.
On Tuesday, the Children’s League of Massachusetts sent a letter to the governor urging him to appoint a permanent commissioner with an advanced degree in social work and at least 10 years’ experience in senior leadership at a public child welfare or private nonprofit agency.
“I personally do not know this interim commissioner because she has no background in human services,” said Erin G. Bradley, the league’s executive director. “So I think that’s going to be interesting to see how this all plays out and how she relates to the human services sector.”
Gail Garinger, head of the Office of the Child Advocate, an independent office charged with overseeing state agencies that work with children, said she was saddened to see Roche leave because she was a “clinician at heart” and wanted the best for the children.
Now that Roche is gone, Garinger said, she believes the new interim commissioner must work closely with the management team to “stabilize the agency” that has been rocked with so much tragedy and criticism.
“She has to calm the staff down and restore the public confidence in the agency,” said Garinger, a former juvenile court judge.
Maureen Flatley, a consultant in child welfare issues and a board member of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said she was disappointed that Roche resigned but felt there was no other option “when you get to the point where everybody is storming the castle with pitchforks.”
“I understand it, and I certainly don’t blame the governor for the decision,” Flatley said. “But the political reality here is it can’t be about one person. I can’t emphasize that enough. At some point, we all have to stop personalizing this and pointing fingers.”
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson. Patricia Wen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.