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JOAN VENNOCHI

On DCF, it’s Martha Coakley vs. Martha Coakley

Martha Coakley spoke at the Globe’s media lab debate last week.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Martha Coakley spoke at the Globe’s media lab debate last week.

It’s hard to understand how Martha Coakley, gubernatorial candidate, can harshly criticize the state agency that oversees child protection, while Martha Coakley, attorney general, staunchly defends that same agency in court.

If Coakley believes what she is saying on the campaign trail about the troubled Department of Children and Families, she should have declined to defend the state of Massachusetts against a class-action suit brought by Children’s Rights. The New York-based watchdog group has charged the state with placing children in potentially dangerous situations and failing to monitor them. Instead, she should have advised Governor Deval Patrick to settle and fix what’s wrong. And now, she should refuse to represent the Patrick administration as it fights efforts by Children’s Rights to appeal a judgment in favor of the state.

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Coakley argues there’s no conflict between her defense of the agency in the lawsuit and her criticism of it as a candidate. “Martha believes that defending in court the important work DCF does every day does not mean we should ever stop trying to improve the way we protect children under their care,” campaign aide Kyle Sullivan recently told the Globe.

But there’s precedent in Massachusetts for a more courageous stand — one that does not hide behind the duty of an AG to represent a governor, but gives precedence to the higher duty to represent the people.

In the 1970s, then Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti refused to defend conditions in state residential schools. He agreed, instead, with plaintiffs who argued the facilities did not meet constitutional standards. Massachusetts then entered into a consent decree with the federal court to close the schools and provide alternative services. The Supreme Judicial Court backed him up in a 1975 ruling, which stated that “The attorney general, as chief law officer of the Commonwealth, has control over the conduct of litigation involving the Commonwealth and this includes the power to make a policy decision not to prosecute an appeal in a particular case.”

Last week, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker said the state should stop litigating the Children’s Rights case and pour its energy and resources into protecting children placed in its care. He’s right.

Of Coakley, the Democrat he’s most likely to face in November, Baker said: “The AG thinks the system is structurally and fundamentally flawed. She could have used the presence of this case to engage with the client about solving those flaws, rather than pressing to have the case dismissed. Instead, she’s defending the status quo.”

She argues there’s no conflict between her defense of DCF in the lawsuit and her criticism of it as a candidate.

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Sure, there’s political advantage for Baker in recent tragic headlines surrounding the fate of Massachusetts children who are under state protection. And he should also be held accountable for policy decisions that were made during his years working for two Republican governors.

But what’s happening today to these most vulnerable citizens of Massachusetts is a legitimate topic for debate in this governor’s race.

If Coakley continues to defend the state agency, she will be associated with its failure, even though she had nothing to do with running it. On behalf of the Patrick administration, she has already argued in court that enough was done to address any problems. “In fact, DCF has developed a thorough system with the requisite flexibility needed to successfully provide services to meet the vast array of needs presented by its eclectic client base,” Coakley and her staff argued in a December 2012 brief.

A year later, the Patrick administration is still trying to account for Jeremiah Oliver, the 5-year-old Fitchburg boy who has been missing since September and is now feared dead. Patrick first tried to categorize the Oliver case as isolated. As more details emerged about the lack of oversight in that case and others, he reluctantly called for an outside review. Since then, a report by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting disclosed that between 2001 and 2010, more than 95 Massachusetts children whose cases were overseen by state social workers have died directly or indirectly because of abuse or neglect.

The state argues that fewer Massachusetts children die from maltreatment than elsewhere in the country. But advocates still believe too many children in Massachusetts are left with caregivers who do them harm.

That’s a policy that needs fixing, not one that needs defending in court by an attorney general who would be governor.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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