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Baker, Coakley spar on child protection efforts

October 6, 2014

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — On the eve of their first Boston debate, the campaigns of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley and Republican nominee Charlie Baker continued sparring Monday over their respective records in state government on the protection of children.

Coakley said Baker failed to give state child protection agencies the resources they needed while he served in former Gov. William Weld’s administration in the 1990s.

Coakley pointed to a decision Baker made as health and human services secretary to return about $2 million to the state’s general fund after lawmakers had appropriated money to help improve the troubled Department of Social Services, now the Department of Children and Families.

“He was the one person in this race who had an opportunity both as secretary of health and human services and (as secretary of administration and finance) to give them the resources that they need. He didn’t do it,” Coakley said. “There was $2 million available that he didn’t use.”

Baker defended his time overseeing the agency, saying they hired a slew of new social workers and made other important improvements.

“We were hiring social workers during that period of time as quickly as we could find qualified people to take the positions,” Baker said. “At the end of the year we ended up with a little bit of an overage.”

The Coakley campaign argued the decision to return the money was a political move because it came as Weld was trying to cut taxes and spending.

“We never did anything to make political points, to score political points, when it came to child welfare and children and families back then,” Baker said.

The sparring over child protection began last week when Coakley responded angrily to what she called a “disgusting” TV ad run by a pro-Baker super PAC that claimed the attorney general opposed reforms in DCF and tried to “silence children’s advocates.”

Baker said he disliked the ad’s tone but stopped short of asking the Commonwealth Future political action committee to withdraw it. He said Coakley had not explained her decision as attorney general to defend the state against a 2010 lawsuit filed by a child welfare group that charged DCF was violating the constitutional rights of foster children.

Coakley said she opted not to settle the lawsuit because the group, Children’s Rights, was advocating a “one-size-fits-all” approach to problems in the foster care system.

Sara Bartosz, lead counsel for Children’s Rights, responded with a statement saying Coakley’s analysis was untrue and that the group welcomed an opportunity to discuss a settlement.

“It is deeply concerning that the very systemic ills raised by our lawsuit remain serious problems today,” Bartosz said

Baker, Coakley and independent gubernatorial candidates Evan Falchuk, Jeff McCormick and Scott Lively are scheduled to square off in a televised debate Tuesday at the WBZ-TV studios in Boston.

Coakley on Monday said Baker’s explanation that the agency essentially couldn’t hire qualified social workers fast enough “sounds like an excuse.”

“That’s what Charlie Baker sees, is ledgers. He sees bottom lines. He doesn’t see the people I have seen in my career,” she said.

Baker’s campaign said during his tenure at health and human services, overall spending for case management and social workers increased.

At an earlier news conference in front of the Statehouse, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Steve Kerrigan and the head of a union representing social workers pointed to a scathing 1993 report from a special commission that said the DSS was “in the midst of an organizational breakdown.”

The report was delivered shortly after Baker was appointed HHS secretary.

Kerrigan, citing news reports from the time, said Baker’s plan to address the shortcomings fell short of expectations from lawmakers and child welfare advocates, and that caseloads continued to spiral out of control.

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