Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker has faulted his Democratic rival, Martha Coakley, for her handling of a lawsuit brought by a New York nonprofit against the state of Massachusetts.
Baker charges that by fighting an out-of-state, nonprofit child advocacy group in court, rather than negotiating with them, Coakley missed an opportunity to improve care for the Bay State’s most at-risk children.
That was four years ago, when a New York-based group called Children’s Rights alleged in federal court that the state Department of Children and Families exhibited a detailed and troubling pattern of negligence in the care of some of its charges. Coakley, representing the state as attorney general, convinced a Boston federal judge that Children’s Rights hadn’t made its case. The nonprofit is appealing.
Baker says Coakley could have done more for Massachusetts children by compromising.
"I simply believe — and I think the history has borne me out on this — that Massachusetts and the children served by that department would have been better served if the commonwealth had moved instead to fix what was wrong at that agency instead of litigating that case.”
"We made the right decision because what those lawyers from outside looking for millions of dollars was, was one-size-fits-all," she said. "It wasn’t right for Massachusetts. The Globe said that. The only ones standing up for it were the lawyers who would benefit."
Children's Rights' most recent tax filing shows the highest paid person there earned a total of nearly $313,000 in one year. That may sound like a lot, but it’s a fraction on what skilled litigators make.
Mary Collins, a professor of social welfare policy at Boston University, doesn’t think the Children's Rights group is out for money.
"I think that they — obviously, in the context of these lawsuits — need to recover the cost of the litigation," Collins said. "My understanding of Children's Rights organization is that they are committed to the well being of children, and again, sometimes forcing system change — this might be one of the only ways to do it."
Children’s Rights lead attorney Sara Bartosz points out the group is only paid when it wins.
"These salaries that are paid are competitive with nonprofit advocacy organizations that do the kind of work we do and take into account that we’re a New York-based organization with lawyers living in a very, very, very expensive city and marketplace.”
Bartosz says a settlement would hold the commonwealth accountable for change.
"The key thing we were looking for, of course, was a reform plan that would stand the test of time," she said. "So instead of having a new initiative or a blue ribbon panel look into possibilities of change, actually sit down and work out and tailor for Massachusetts a reform plan that would be an enforceable plan — a plan where a promise is made you’re saying to the court, 'Hold us to this. It’s that important and we’re going to get this done right for the kids once and for all.'”
Children’s Rights has sued about 20 governments to improve their child welfare systems. Three states and the District of Columbia fought back, while others settled. Fifteen of the cases resulted in consent decrees. Some examples of the results: Independent monitors report New Jersey has made “significant progress,” while Washington, D.C. and Connecticut are still lagging in important ways.
A somewhat similar effort in Massachusetts also resulted in a mixed bag. The 55-year-old children's advocacy organization Mass Kids filed a class-action suit against the state in the 1980s. The group’s executive director, Jetta Bernier, says the administration of former Gov. Michael Dukakis settled, but many of the improvements they achieved weren’t lasting.
“After four years of litigation that was very expensive and time consuming, we learned an important lesson as advocates," Bernier said. "And that was essentially that you can make gains, but if you can’t sustain them, you’re back at square one. If the parties are willing to come to the table and have the mission of child safety first and foremost in their minds, a lot can be accomplished. I don’t think litigation is necessarily the way to go."
But rather than talk about this case, Bernier wants the candidates to detail the ways they plan to improve DCF.
So here are the specifics — or at least a summary of them: Coakley’s plan to improve the Department of Children and Families includes creating a separate child protection division to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect. Baker says he would perform detailed audits to identify failing DCF offices, then give those offices new management and oversight.
Whatever citizens may think of these two plans on will eventually emerge a winner in the court of public opinion called the November election.