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Governor-elect Charlie Baker on Monday chose a national child welfare advocate who helped review the Department of Children and Families after a string of tragedies last year to lead the struggling agency in his new administration.

Linda S. Spears, currently vice president for policy, programs and public affairs at the Washington-based Child Welfare League of America, will serve as commissioner of DCF, an agency Baker has said desperately needs systemic reforms.

Spears will replace Erin Deveney, a lawyer and longtime state transportation official, whom Governor Deval Patrick picked to lead DCF last year after the resignation of Commissioner Olga Roche, who was criticized for a series of botched cases on her watch.

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“Governor-elect Baker understands that there is a tremendous task ahead to protect children and serve families in Massachusetts,” Spears said in a prepared statement Monday. “I am looking forward to his leadership as we work to restore the trust of the people of Massachusetts in this vital agency, and the trust of children who depend on a strong DCF.”

RELATED: Report cites rise in cases of child abuse in Mass.

Baker on Monday also named Francisco Urena, Boston’s commissioner of veterans’ services since 2011, to serve as state secretary of veterans’ services. Urena, a former tank commander in the Marines, was awarded a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq and previously worked as director of veterans’ services in Lawrence.

Child welfare specialists applauded the hiring of Spears, saying she would bring a valuable national perspective from her 22 years at the Child Welfare League, a nonprofit that consults, lobbies, and develops standards and training programs in the child protection field. Spears also worked for the Massachusetts child welfare agency from 1983 to 1992.

“She’s going to hit the ground running, and it’s a real sign that the incoming administration takes the issue of child welfare — and the need for real, significant change at DCF — seriously,” said Mary McGeown, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

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Despite a recent influx of funding and new technology at DCF, McGeown said Spears will need to continue to improve policies, training and hiring at the agency, which is charged with protecting 36,000 children from abuse and neglect in some of the most troubled families in the state.

As of September, DCF workers were carrying 18 cases on average, and dozens had more than 25 cases each, according to the state social workers’ union. The Child Welfare League recommends that social workers handle no more than 15 cases on average.

“We are absolutely going in the right direction, though it’s not mission accomplished,” McGeown said. “Caseloads continue to be very high across the state.”

The hiring of Spears presents one potentially awkward problem.

In October, the state Office of the Child Advocate, an independent agency that monitors DCF, signed a contract not to exceed $200,000 with the Child Welfare League to conduct an emergency review of DCF’s management, record-keeping, and background check policies. But now, with Spears’ hiring, the league’s longtime vice president is going to be DCF’s commissioner, raising the question of how independent the league can be in completing its review.

“I’m going to need to sit down and reevaluate the situation in conjunction with the inspector general,” Gail Garinger, who heads the Office of the Child Advocate, said Monday.

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Tim Buckley, a Baker spokesman, said the incoming administration will work with Garinger to “avoid any appearance of a conflict there.”

Spears has worked in the child welfare field for more than 30 years. A member of the Narragansett Indian tribe, she did most of her undergraduate work at the University of Rhode Island before completing her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Argosy University in 2009. She is currently working to complete her master’s degree in social work at the University of Southern California, taking online courses.

Last year, Spears led the Child Welfare League’s review of DCF, which Patrick commissioned following several tragedies, including the death of Jeremiah Oliver, a Fitchburg boy whose body was found on the side of a highway after his state social worker skipped eight mandatory monthly visits.

The $150,000 state-funded report faulted DCF for inadequate staffing and technology and “grossly out of date” policies to protect children, but said the agency could not have prevented Jeremiah’s death. That finding sparked criticism from lawmakers who said the review downplayed the agency’s failure to properly monitor the boy’s troubled family.

Spears concluded that DCF needed more money to further reduce caseloads, as well as better mobile technology so home visits could be logged from the road and managers could spot missed visits and other problems.

As DCF commissioner, advocates said, Spears will now be charged with carrying out the recommendations she made in her report.

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“Her work at the league helped lay out a clear blueprint for reform and investment at DCF, and formed the backbone of our landmark contractual agreement to bring caseloads down to safer, more manageable levels,” said Peter MacKinnon, president of the union that represents DCF workers. “Social workers and investigators look forward to continuing our work with Linda to institute the reforms and investments needed to keep at-risk children safe throughout Massachusetts.”


Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe
.com
. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.