Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday named a nonprofit social services administrator to be the state’s new child advocate, filling a key position that monitors and investigates the troubled state Department of Children and Families.
Maria Z. Mossaides, the executive director of Cambridge Family and Children Service, will take over as head of the Office of the Child Advocate as DCF grapples with widespread management problems, soaring caseloads, and a pair of recent tragedies involving children who died or were abused under the department’s watch.
The office, which has a $600,000 budget and four staff members, has a wide-ranging mission. Armed with subpoena power, it can investigate cases of abuse and can also examine systemic problems in the child welfare system and recommend improvements.
“I went to law school many years ago to serve as an advocate for children. Child welfare is my soul work,” Mossaides said in a statement. “For me to work on a statewide basis to make sure that all children have the opportunity to thrive, I can’t think of a better job.”
Child welfare specialists praised the selection, even as they acknowledged the monumental challenge Mossaides will face as a new watchdog and overseer of a sprawling department that many say is failing to properly protect the 48,500 children it monitors.
“If anybody can handle it, it’s her,” said Erin G. Bradley, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts, where Mossaides served as board chairwoman from 2012 to 2014. “She knows this stuff. She knows where the pitfalls are.”
Mossaides, 64, will replace Gail Garinger, a former juvenile court judge who has been child advocate since shortly after the position was created by Governor Deval Patrick following a series of high-profile child abuse cases in 2008.
Garinger, 69, will take a new part-time position as director of the Child and Youth Protection Unit in Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, Healey announced Thursday. The newly created unit is intended to work with child welfare groups, state and local officials, and the courts to improve services for vulnerable children, Healey’s office said.
Mossaides is a familiar figure in child welfare circles, having led Cambridge Family and Children Service since 2008.
The private agency, which has contracts with DCF, provides counseling to about 500 children who have been abused and neglected or have developmental disabilities, according to board president Gerald J. Fine.
Fine called Mossaides a perfect fit for the role of Child Advocate. “She is both fearless and a woman of action, and she is absolutely apolitical,” he said.
From 2001 to 2008, Mossaides was director of operations at the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust, according to her LinkedIn page.
Before that, she was executive assistant to the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, acting commissioner of the state Office of Children, and a lawyer in the state child welfare department.
Mossaides, who declined to be interviewed when reached by phone, is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and received a law degree from SUNY Buffalo and a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
She was mentioned during the Patrick administration as a possible candidate to serve as DCF commissioner after the death of Jeremiah Oliver, a Fitchburg boy who went missing in December 2013 after state social workers skipped repeated visits to his home.
A month after Jeremiah’s body was discovered, Mossaides and Bradley co-wrote a Globe opinion piece arguing that DCF “has been slowly bled dry and its infrastructure dismantled over the last several years.”
“Real money has to be invested in our children. Real money is needed to hire adequate social work staff. Real money has to be appropriated for technology more advanced than fax machines,” Mossaides and Bradley wrote.
“She is a true advocate at heart, and she cares more about kids than any other person I’ve ever met,” Bradley said Thursday.
Mossaides will take over on Oct. 13. In the interim, Baker appointed Linda Carlisle to serve as acting child advocate. Carlisle was the state commissioner of social services in the 1990s, when Baker was state health and human services secretary.
As it changes leaders, the Office of the Child Advocate is investigating two recent tragedies involving children under DCF watch. One involves a 2-year-old who died and a 22-month-old who was found in critical condition in a DCF-monitored foster home in Auburn last month.
The other involves a 7-year-old Hardwick boy who fell into a coma in July, after his father allegedly beat him and refused to provide him with food and water.
The office is also overseeing a review of DCF management that the Legislature commissioned last year. The preliminary findings, released by Garinger on Wednesday, found the department lacks the personnel and tools needed to consistently fulfill its mission to protect children from abuse.