SOMERVILLE — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley, who spent part of her career prosecuting child abuse cases, lashed out Thursday at a new television ad accusing her of not doing enough to protect children and demanded that Republican candidate Charlie Baker disavow it. He did not.
The tough new ad — created by the Commonwealth Future Political Action Committee, which supports Baker — and Coakley’s angry reaction to it are among the most personal episodes of the governor’s race to date.
“The ad is meritless. It’s intentionally misleading. It’s deceitful. And it’s outrageous,” Coakley, the state’s attorney general, said Thursday morning at her campaign headquarters, her voice at times strained with anger. “If he doesn’t pull it, it means he accepts it and that he endorses it.”
By Coakley’s side as she spoke were social workers, former colleagues, and Deborah Eappen, mother of Matthew Eappen, the 8½-month-old who died in the care of his nanny, Louise Woodward, in 1997. Coakley prosecuted the case.
Baker did not publicly reject the television commercial, nor call for its removal.
“I don’t like the tone of the ad,” Baker said Thursday afternoon. But, he said, “the issue that’s raised by the ad . . . is a decision worth discussing.”
The 32-second ad begins with Beth Lindstrom, president of the PAC, introducing herself and telling viewers who paid for the spot. Then it fades to black-and-white images of a playground void of children, an empty swing set, and spinning merry-go-round.
“More than 50 children abused, neglected, lives cut short, all while under the care of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families,” the narrator says. A newspaper headline, “Savage toll of abuse for children in DCF care,” is displayed at the bottom of the screen.
“Martha Coakley knew about mismanagement at DCF,” the narrator continues. “Coakley defended the agency’s actions, opposed reform, and tried to silence children’s advocates. Martha Coakley failed our most vulnerable citizens. How can we trust her again?”
Lindstrom did not respond to calls for comment. A spokeswoman for the PAC said the ad “speaks for itself.”
Coakley, in her role as the state’s attorney general, defended Massachusetts in a lawsuit brought by Children’s Rights, a New York-based advocacy group.
The suit seeks to force DCF to improve its monitoring of children and boost standards of care and safety.
The children’s advocacy group has filed at least 20 similar lawsuits against child welfare agencies across the country and has settled at least 15.
A judge ruled against the group in the Massachusetts case last year, attributing the “laundry list of problems plaguing DCF” to a lack of funding. Children’s Rights appealed.
On Thursday, Baker lamented the DCF shortcomings outlined in the court documents.
“Read the brief. Read the brief. I’ve read that brief; as the father of three kids, I’m telling you that brief is really something,” Baker said passionately in South Boston yesterday. “It makes me sad. It’s case after case after case of kids who’ve been ping-ponged and pinballed all over our child welfare system in really troubling, difficult, and disturbing ways.”
Baker said the attorney general, whom he lauded as a public servant, could have recommended settling the case and “moved forward with a plan to fix what was broken at DCF based on the compelling evidence that was put forth by the brief.”
Coakley said Thursday morning that the suit was brought by attorneys from outside Massachusetts seeking millions of taxpayer’s dollars in fees.
“We took the position that their solution was one-size-fits-all; it wasn’t right for Massachusetts,” she said. “We should put our resources into making DCF better, not paying lawyers from across the country.”
Coakley said she knows that improvements at DCF are necessary and noted that some of the budget cuts that hampered DCF’s performance were overseen by Baker’s agency when he was in government.
For five years in the early 1990s, she was chief of the child abuse unit in the Middlesex district attorney’s office. During that time, Coakley’s campaign said, the office oversaw the investigation and prosecution of about 900 cases a year of abuse, neglect, and death.
During that time, Baker was secretary of administration and finance for the state, overseeing a budget that cut funding, reduced resources and staff, and caused higher caseloads, Coakley said.
Asked if the problem with DCF was exacerbated during his time in state government, Baker answered by saying that he was proud of the work he did during his tenure.
Those who stood with Coakley Thursday morning took umbrage with the ad and blasted Baker and the PAC for politicizing the state’s most vulnerable children.
“I saw an ad last night that frankly disgusted me,” said Democratic attorney general candidate Maura Healey, a former Coakley aide. “I know we’re in a political season, but this was really over the line. The voters and the public of Massachusetts deserve far better than this.”
Healey said Baker should be embarrassed and ashamed, while crediting Coakley with fighting child sex trafficking, cyberpredators, and bullying.
The stories of children wove their way into Thursday’s oratory, as Coakley became emotional discussing the work her office did. In 1997, she and another attorney prosecuted the high-profile, shaken-baby case against Woodward, the nanny in the Eappen case.