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Fact checking Baker, Coakley’s records on child welfare

Wendy Maeda/Globe staff photos

Problems in the state child welfare system have become the main flashpoint in the governor’s race between Democrat Martha Coakley (left) and Republican Charlie Baker.

By Globe Staff 

Problems past and present in the state child welfare system have suddenly become the main flashpoint in the governor’s race.

Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker are attacking one another’s records for failing to strengthen the child protection system and allowing problems to fester.

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But a closer look at some of their statements in debates Tuesday night and Wednesday morning reveal that both are glossing over facts and omitting key contextual information, offering voters just a sliver of the truth — or even distorting it — to bolster their arguments.

Coakley says Baker snubbed money for social workers

Coakley accused Baker, who served as a top aide under Governor William F. Weld in the 1990s, of rejecting money that the Legislature had appropriated to hire social workers.

Related coverage: Candidates spar over child agency, health care

“Charlie was secretary of health and human services and one year reverted $2 million, when he could have been working to make kids safer,” she said during a WBZ-TV Tuesday night.

Backstory: Coakley was pointing out that in 1996, when Baker was state budget chief (not health and human services secretary), the Weld administration sent $1.9 million from the state child welfare department’s budget back into the state’s general coffers.

That decision helped persuade an arbitrator to side with the social workers’ union and rule in 1998 that the Weld administration had repeatedly violated the workers’ contract by not providing enough money to bring caseloads down to manageable levels.

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The arbitrator ordered the Weld administration to give $950,000 back to the social workers, to pay for overtime they had worked.

In an April Globe story about his record on child welfare issues, Baker said he did not recall the flap over the $2 million, but said there were times when he asked the Legislature for more money for child protection and was denied. He also said it was a struggle to find qualified social workers even when the department had money to spend.

“You can’t just flick a switch like that and, all of a sudden, people fall out of the sky who fit the skills and roles and responsibilities you’re looking to solve for,” he told the Globe in April.

Baker says he hired social workers, cut caseloads

Baker defended his record, saying the child welfare department won awards when he was in state government. “In the 1990s, we hired hundreds of additional social workers,” he said. “We got the caseload down.”

Backstory: The Weld administration hired 300 additional social workers in the 1990s, according to a 1995 Globe opinion piece by Gael Mahony, a lawyer who led a prominent commission that monitored the department and made recommendations to strengthen it.

But contrary to Baker’s assertion in the debate, caseloads remained a problem and were even heavier than they are now.

During Baker’s years as health and human services secretary, from 1992 to 1994, each social worker handled 19 to 21 cases on average. Hundreds had more than 22 cases each, according to state data compiled by the social workers’ union. Currently, social workers handle about 18 cases each on average.

Beyond that, Baker had mixed success in trying to repair the long-troubled child welfare agency, which was known then as the Department of Social Services.

On his watch, adoptions increased, oversight was toughened, and a $50 million computer system was installed to track cases after the agency came under fire in 1992 for abruptly removing a boy from his longtime foster home. But social workers were still overburdened.

Baker faults Coakley for fighting child welfare lawsuit

Baker criticized Coakley for defending the state Department of Children and Families against a lawsuit from a children’s advocacy group that has accused the department of endangering foster children. That suit is at the heart of the Republican super PAC ad attacking Coakley.

“I think the Commonwealth would have been better served and the people would have been better served by that agency if, instead of litigating that case, Massachusetts, like 15 other states, had moved forward with a plan to fix what was broken,” Baker said during a Wednesday debate sponsored by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

Coakley has repeatedly said that the case against the state did not have merit. “That case was dismissed. And what we said was, rather than spend millions of dollars on outside lawyers, let’s work within on a solution that’s not one-size-fits-all.”

Backstory: Since April 2010, Coakley, as attorney general, has been fighting a lawsuit brought by Children’s Rights, a New York-based watchdog group that is trying to force DCF to tighten its monitoring of foster children and boost standards of care and safety. The Globe reported in January that Children’s Rights has filed at least 20 similar lawsuits against child welfare agencies across the country and has settled at least 15.

In court filings, Coakley has argued that the Patrick administration has already taken strong steps to meet the standards that Children’s Rights is demanding. The Patrick administration has backed her decision to fight the suit, saying it is “overreaching and would have not improved the quality of care for children.”

Coakley was correct when she pointed out that US District Court Judge William G. Young dismissed the lawsuit in November 2013. But she did not mention that he also issued a scathing opinion in which he acknowledged that Children’s Rights had documented a “laundry list of problems plaguing DCF.”

Young attributed the failures to the Legislature’s decision to underfund the agency. “DCF has failed not only to comport with national standards of care and state and federal requirements, but also to comply with its own internal policies,” he wrote.

Sara Bartosz, lead counsel for Children’s Rights, has rejected Coakley’s assertion that the group is seeking a one-size-fits-all fix, saying that her organization is willing to work with the state to find a solution.


Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.