Child advocate wants more independence from governor
The new head of the Office of the Child Advocate, charged with the politically sensitive task of investigating the state’s child welfare system, is seeking more independence from the governor’s office that just appointed her to the high-profile post.
In one of her first official acts since being sworn in last week, Maria Z. Mossaides plans to testify Tuesday in support of legislation that would require the attorney general, state auditor, and governor to jointly appoint the child advocate to a fixed five-year term. Under current state law, the head of the office is appointed solely by the governor and serves at his pleasure.
Critics say that arrangement makes the child advocate, who is armed with subpoena power and a wide-ranging mission to monitor and investigate the Department of Children and Families, subject to the whims of the governor who runs the department.
Mossaides said she did not believe that there have been any instances of political meddling since the office was created under Governor Deval Patrick in 2008.
But she said that giving the child advocate a five-year term will ensure that the agency can truly operate without fear of reprisal.
“What we’re talking about is not in reaction to some perceived problem,” Mossaides said in an interview Monday. “What they’re trying to do is to ensure that there’s not the possibility of any inappropriate intervention.”
Governor Charlier Baker’s press secretary, Lizzy Guyton, did not directly address whether the governor, who has made fixing DCF a top priority, would support the bill.
“The Baker-Polito administration is implementing much-needed reforms in the Department of Children and Families to keep children safe and support frontline social workers, and Governor Baker looks forward to working with the Legislature to strengthen safeguards for vulnerable children,” she said in a statement Monday.
The push for the bill comes as Mossaides, who was sworn in Wednesday, plans to take a more active role in seeking to overhaul DCF, which has been widely criticized as dysfunctional following the deaths of several children under its watch.
“Given the recent tragedies, there’s a heightened sense of why it’s important for the Office of the Child Advocate to be as independent a voice as public models permit,” she said.
The office, which has a $600,000 budget and four staff members, can investigate cases of abuse and can also examine systemic problems in the child protection system and recommend improvements.
Later this month, Mossaides plans to release a report that Baker commissioned on Bella Bond, the 2-year-old who was allegedly killed by her mother’s boyfriend and whose body was found on Deer Island this summer.
Mossaides also plans to release within the next several weeks a management review of DCF that was commissioned by the Legislature and conducted by the Ripples Group, a Boston consulting firm.
The Ripples Group’s interim review, released last month as one of the final acts by Mossaides’s predecessor, Gail Garinger, showed how politically charged the office’s work can be.
The sharply critical study found that DCF had lost 40 managers, or 17 percent of its management positions, as a result of Baker’s push to trim the state payroll through early retirement incentives.
It also found that the department lacked a clearly articulated plan for improvement, and was plagued by decision-making that is often a response to the latest crisis.
Erin G. Bradley, the executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts, said that with a new governor in power, the timing could be right to take a fresh look at the office.
“The child advocate shouldn’t be looked at as a political position,” Bradley said. “It should be looked at as an independent voice.”
Senator Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat who sponsored the bill, said she originally wanted the office to be more politically independent when it was created in 2008, but was rebuffed by Patrick, who wanted to retain control over the appointment process.
If her bill were to pass, Spilka said, the plan would be for Mossaides to remain in the position for five years, when she could be reappointed by the the attorney general, state auditor, and governor.
Spilka pointed out that she filed the bill in January, before Mossaides took office. Garinger, who was child advocate at the time, has also been supportive of the bill. Spilka said it is part of a larger effort to empower the office that should also include increased funding.
Under the legislation, the child advocate could serve for up two five-year terms and could only be removed by a majority vote of the attorney general, state auditor, and governor for reasons such as “substantial neglect of duty, gross misconduct or conviction of a crime.”
“This could be a really powerful position to help protect our kids, even more than it is,” Spilka said.