Politics

New human services chief goes from front lines to calling the shots

Marylou Sudders’ interest in social work and mental illness began when her mother was in the final stages of a mental illness that would claim her life. She has held some of the most influential public policy positions in the state.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Marylou Sudders’ interest in social work and mental illness began when her mother was in the final stages of a mental illness that would claim her life. She has held some of the most influential public policy positions in the state.

Marylou Sudders’ mother was in the final stages of a mental illness that would claim her life. Though her mother was only 40, a social worker suggested to an adolescent Sudders that she would be most comfortable in a nursing home.

Sudders was shocked at the notion that the best solution for her mother would be to spend her last days with much older people.

“That’s what a social worker is? I can do a lot better than that,” she remembered thinking.

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Thus began Sudders’ interest in social work and mental illness, which led to a career that has taken her from working with clients as a social worker to being an advocate in the State House and an academic at Boston College. She has held some of the most influential public policy positions in the state and, in January, she will join Governor-elect Charlie Baker’s administration as secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

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“In some ways, I think my entire career has led to this opportunity,” Sudders said in an interview.

Sudders was commissioner of the state’s Department of Mental Health from 1996 to 2003, during several Republican administrations. She then became president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, where she was at the forefront of overhauling the state’s juvenile justice system. After leaving to join Boston College in 2012, she served on a panel that helped draft changes to the state’s gun control laws. She is also currently a member of a commission charged with curbing the growth of health care spending in Massachusetts.

On Jan. 8, Sudders will take over a state office with a $19.4 billion budget, accounting for more than half of the state’s spending this fiscal year. Health and Human Services oversees several critical agencies, including the Department of Children and Families, which made headlines after it lost track of a child whose body was later found by the side of a highway. Sudders will also oversee the Department of Public Health, which has been ensnared in near-constant controversy over the past two years following a meningitis outbreak traced to a compounding pharmacy one of its boards regulates and the problem-plagued rollout of the state’s medical marijuana law.

In Baker, Sudders will have a boss who has also been secretary of health and human services and who has placed a priority on addressing the widespread problem of prescription drug and heroin abuse.

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Sudders, 60, is considered well-qualified to take on those challenges, according to people who have worked with her. She is described as a good listener, and someone who seeks out different viewpoints and is concerned above all with how policies will affect people. She is an early riser, full of energy, and is not afraid of taking on difficult problems.

“She doesn’t try to simplify things,” said Maria Z. Mossaides, executive director of Cambridge Family and Children’s Service. “She recognizes the complexities of the issues involved.”

When Sudders started out as a social worker, she wanted to know why certain clients couldn’t obtain services she thought they needed. That led to an interest in public policy, she said.

Sudders’ career highlights, across her many roles, include pushing for parity in insurance coverage for physical and mental illness, helping to secure early intervention services for children with mental illness, and championing reforms to the state’s juvenile justice system. She lobbied for children who were in the state’s juvenile justice system though they had not committed crimes, advocating that they be removed from the system and be provided mental health and substance abuse counseling instead.

“She’s very politically savvy, very approachable with a lot of common sense, a very hard worker,” said state Senator Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, who sponsored the juvenile justice reform bill for seven years before it became law in 2012.

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Sudders, who is politically unenrolled, has at times been critical of government, most recently following reports about the mistreatement of mentally ill patients at Bridgewater State Hospital, but she thinks government can be a force for good if resources are maximized and applied fairly.

Sudders said she hopes to restore the public’s confidence in the state’s child welfare system, and ensure the state’s MassHealth program, which administers Medicaid, is sustainable over the long term.

Representative Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat, hasn’t always agreed with Sudders, but said she has the experience to allow her to immediately get to work in her new role.

“I think she gets it in terms of what the needs are,” Khan said.

Dr. Carole Allen, a pediatrician who serves with Sudders on the state’s Health Policy Commission, remembered listening sessions the commission held on when emergency staffing levels should be invoked at hospitals.

“She really ran them extremely well,” Allen said. “Very courteously and very thoroughly — she never cut anybody off, and she stayed until the bitter end. That’s very characteristic of her.”

During the commission’s deliberations on how to curb the rising cost of health care in the state, Sudders often spoke up for patients, Allen said. Sudders will remain on the commission in 2015, by virtue of her new position.

“We really need her voice on there,” Allen said.

Sudders has not worked directly with clients in many years, but said she keeps an ear to the ground to hear from people about their experiences with the system.

“That’s what health and human services is about,” she said. “That is always my lens.”

At the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, she oversaw an organization focused on helping families with home visits and multiple services before government intervention became necessary. She is an associate professor and chairwoman of Health and Mental Health in the School of Social Work at Boston College.

Mary McGeown, who succeeded Sudders as president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, expects that Sudders will have a clear road map for what the department can accomplish in the first six months.

“She’s a good strategic thinker,” McGeown said.

Sudders graduated from Boston University with a bachelor of arts with honors and a master’s degree in social work.

When she is not working, Sudders, who lives in Cambridge, enjoys hiking trips to places like Mount Kilimanjaro and Yosemite. Her honeymoon was spent hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in South America. She also bakes for her 93-year-old mother-in-law every week. Baking is a process, much like crafting public policy, she said.

“I like beginnings, middles, and ends.”