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JOAN VENNOCHI

Will DCF case taint Coakley?

Olga Roche is no longer the state’s child welfare commissioner, but her departure alone won’t guarantee reform of a troubled system.

On that point, there’s agreement between Attorney General Martha Coakley and a child rights group that’s pressing forward with a class action suit filed against the state of Massachusetts.

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But Coakley — and Governor Deval Patrick — disagree with the plaintiffs on the best route to reform. So that puts the AG, who is also the leading Democratic candidate for governor, in a politically delicate spot — defending Massachusetts in court at a time when the public is immersed in horror stories about the state’s child welfare system.

Children’s Rights, a New York-based watchdog organization, continues to seek a court-ordered consent decree to force Massachusetts to change its way of handling child protection cases. The group, which argues that the state has failed to meet its legal duty to some 8,000 foster children entrusted to its care, is appealing a federal judge’s decision to dismiss its suit.

Roche’s resignation is “a start,” said Sara Bartosz, the lead attorney on the Children’s Rights case. But, she added, “the events of the past months are nothing short of heartbreaking . . . I hope it’s clear to everyone now that the system needs serious attention and reform.”

Coakley’s backers say it isn’t fair to suggest Coakley opposes reform because she’s defending the state in the class action suit; she has her own reform proposal, and it’s better to achieve it legislatively rather than through the courts. The AG wants to restructure the agency by creating a separate child protection division, a plan she said she would implement if she’s elected governor.

As a practical matter, however, it means Coakley, as candidate, presents herself as a change agent, even as Coakley, as AG, officially defends the status quo in court.

Coakley, as candidate, presents herself as a change agent, even as Coakley, as AG, officially defends the status quo in court.

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This illustrates the classic challenge for any attorney general running for higher office and sets Coakley apart from other Democrats running for governor. So far, however, there’s no sign the conflict registers as a negative with voters. Coakley leads her nearest rival by 30 points, according to recent polls.

For weeks, Coakley backed Patrick on his decision to stand behind Roche, who was under fire for a case involving the disappearance of a 4-year-old boy who was under state protection. Jeremiah Oliver had not been seen by relatives since September, but was not reported missing until December. An investigation revealed that a state social worker had failed to conduct home visits as required; on April 18, the child’s body was discovered along a roadside.

That sad news was followed by headlines about the deaths of two more children — four-month-old Aliana Lavigne and 16-day-old Bailey Irish — who were also under state protection. At that point, Coakley joined other Democratic leaders on Beacon Hill who called for Roche to resign as head of the Department of Children and Families.

In a statement put out by her campaign, Coakley said, “The challenges at DCF go well beyond the leadership of the commissioner, however, and it is imperative that we implement additional reforms to better protect our children.”

Barotsz said that Massachusetts is obviously entitled to defend the suit in court. “What’s truly regrettable is that the very problem that existed four years ago continues to exist today,” she said.

Given the recent loss of three children who were supposedly under state protection, and the systemic deficiencies that came to light, Massachusetts citizens may be wary of promises made by any politician. As Coakley readies her arguments for appeals court, she could run up against the verdict that’s already forming in the court of public opinion.

More coverage: Yvonne Abraham: DCF an agency of awful realities | Veteran manager Erin Deveney takes over as child welfare chief | Timeline of Mass. child welfare agency’s woes | Adrian Walker: Why firing Roche won’t fix the troubled DCF | Farah Stockman: Is the next DCF chief going to do any better? | Kevin Cullen: The answer isn’t just pumping more money into DCF

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