Case #2251.0

Shoring Up Child Protection in Massachusetts: Commissioner Spears & the Push to Go Fast

Publication Date: July 13, 2023
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In January 2015, when incoming Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker chose Linda Spears as his new Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, he was looking for a reformer. Following the grizzly death of a child under DCF protection in 2014, Spears, a former front-line child welfare worker who had gone on to serve as vice president of a Washington D.C.-based child welfare think tank, was hired to review the case and assess what had gone wrong in the DCF system. Spears concluded that the blame did not lie with individual staff workers, but with a host of systemic problems, some the product of recession-era budget cuts. She recommended dozens of reforms. Impressed by Spears’ assessment of the agency, Baker recruited her to come to Massachusetts, head the child welfare agency, and implement her proposed reforms—and he promised to give her his backing.

No sooner had she arrived than three disturbing new cases—two child fatalities and one near-fatality—dealt another body blow to public confidence in the DCF. At this point, the Governor decided the DCF needed more than reform—it needed an emergency intervention and a very fast turnaround. He sent his Chief of Staff and “fix-it specialist,” Steve Kadish, to collaborate with Spears in righting the state’s child protection ship as quickly as possible, with a high-octane all-hands-on-deck staffing-and-reform effort, using a popular project management tool called Agile/Scrum.

For Spears and her team, the attention from on-high was both a source of pressure and a rare opportunity to bypass some of the usual impediments to rapid change in state government. She decided to lean in, and that meant figuring out how to make effective use of Agile/Scrum—initially created to speed product development in the competitive technology sector—in a very different environment: an agency of social workers working with complex family struggles and kids in need of protection and services.

Learning Objective:
This management and leadership case can be used to introduce Question Zero, Theory of Change, Logic Models, Process Analysis, and Strategic Use of Data. In addition, the case supports discussion of how to identify priorities in a crisis, the use of Agile/Scrum in a social service agency, the role of line workers and union reps in agency reform, and how data metrics can be used strategically to change organizational culture and improve performance. 


Other Details

Teaching Plan:
Available with Educator Access
Case Author:
Pamela Varley
Faculty Lead:
Julie Boatright Wilson
Pages (incl. exhibits):
United States