Metro

Child advocacy group disputes Coakley on DCF suit

A national children’s advocacy group struck back at Democratic gubernatorial nominee Martha Coakley Friday, saying she has leveled “irresponsible” charges against the group with her contention that it is suing the state’s troubled child welfare agency in order to collect hefty and publicly funded legal fees.

“Very frankly, any suggestion that the lawsuit is motivated by legal fees is irresponsible,’’ said Sara Bartosz, lead counsel for Children’s Rights, which filed the 2010 federal lawsuit. The group has in the past collected millions of dollars in legal fees in suits against state governments over their failure to protect foster children.

“The suit is not about fees; it is not about politics. It’s about the state’s most vulnerable kids being harmed by the very system that is meant to protect them,’’ Bartosz, a former top lawyer in the Clinton White House, said in an interview Friday. Coakley represents the Department of Children and Families in her role as attorney general.

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Meanwhile, Coakley’s campaign tried to keep up the pressure on Republican rival Charlie Baker on the same issue, pointing to a report commissioned by Governor William F. Weld’s administration when Baker was health and human services secretary in the early 1990s. It criticized the agency for a variety of major failings, including organizational breakdown, a crisis in caseloads, and a leadership “exacerbated to the edge of organizational collapse.’’

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Bartosz’s comments were prompted by Coakley’s denunciation this week of a new television ad by a Republican-funded super PAC that accuses her of ignoring the mismanagement at DCF and implies that her inaction resulted in the abuse, neglect, and even death of scores of foster children. The ad refers to the Children’s Rights lawsuit.

At a press conference Thursday, Coakley called on Baker to disavow the ad produced by the Commonwealth Future Fund.

In response, Baker criticized the tone of the ad but defended its theme: that Coakley had mounted a legal battle against the Children’s Rights efforts to force changes at DCF.

Coakley’s strategy to publicly denounce the GOP attack ad is designed to blunt its brutal depiction of her role in the DCF lawsuit. But her move also revives questions about her role in defending the agency that got caught up in a firestorm when it lost track of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy, in September 2013. He was found dead last April along Interstate 190. His mother and her boyfriend are facing child abuse charges.

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Bartosz also said Coakley’s suggestion that a federal judge found the suit “meritless” badly mischaracterized his ruling, noting that he had some harsh conclusions about the way DCF is carrying out its mission caring for foster children.

The Globe reported earlier this year that Coakley was on the campaign trail strongly criticizing DCF and its management, saying that its social workers were so overworked they could not properly protect foster children. But at the same time her office was vigorously battling the Children’s Rights suit that seeks to force DCF to improve its operations. She argued that the agency has already taken strong steps to meet what the advocacy group is demanding.

While US District Judge William G. Young ruled against the suit in late 2013, he issued a caustic opinion in which he agreed that Children’s Rights documented a strong case that DCF has failed to meet national and state standards and is rife with huge management problems caused by legislative underfunding.

“DCF has failed not only to comport with national standards of care and state and federal requirements, but also comply with its own internal policies,’’ Young said.

He said, however, that the suit had not proven the “substantial deviance’’ from those standards required under case law for a court to enforce changes. Children’s Rights has appealed the case, expected to be heard in early November.

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“That is far from a meritless lawsuit,’’ said Bartosz. “It is an explicit court finding that evidence in the case established that there are many defects in the system that exposes children to harm.”

On Friday, Coakley reiterated her argument that the suit would impose the wrong solutions at a great cost to DCF.

“It proposes a one-size-fits-all solution to our foster care system that hasn’t worked as promised in other states and would have required millions in taxpayer dollars to be paid in attorneys’ fees,’’ she said in a prepared statement. “I thought that money would be best spent on protecting our children.’’

Bartosz said her nonprofit has not collected any fee since it filed the suit. A congressionally authorized fee-setting process for civil right suits filed for often indigent clients is used by the courts after a decision is rendered.

Meanwhile, the efficacy of the Coakley campaign efforts to pin the problems of the state foster care system in the 1990s on Baker is not clear. He and Weld had created the special commission that described the dysfunctional agency.

But his follow-through has been criticized. Several members of a commission charged with overhauling the department during that time said Baker never fully embraced their call for proper staffing.

“Charlie Baker is the last person who should be attacking Martha Coakley on these issues,’’ said Bonnie McGilpin, Coakley’s campaign press secretary.

The Baker campaign shot back, saying that Weld and Baker are “widely credited” with turning around the agency, saying that it became a “national leader in adoptions.”

“Unlike the attorney general, Charlie and Governor Weld listened to advocates who raised concerns and worked to implement recommended reforms that bettered the quality of life for those under the agency’s care,’’ said Baker spokesman Tim Buckley.

Frank Phillips can be reached at frank.phillips@globe.com.