BOSTON — Attorney General Martha Coakley is defending Gov. Deval Patrick’s decision not to fire the head of the state’s embattled Department of Children and Families, following the disappearance of a 5-year-old boy now feared dead.
The Democratic candidate for governor said Tuesday that Patrick, also a Democrat, was right for first asking for an independent audit.
Patrick, who is not seeking re-election, has backed DCF Commissioner Olga Roche and enlisted the Child Welfare League of America to conduct a review of the agency.
“You need someone at the helm and she has experience. And unless you have someone who’s ready to come in and turn this agency around, I’m not sure that’s the immediate solution,” Coakley said when asked if Roche should be removed. “I think the governor’s doing what he needs to do in terms of this audit.”
The department has been under scrutiny since social workers lost track of the boy, Jeremiah Oliver. The child went missing in September but police didn’t learn of his disappearance until December.
Three department employees – a social worker, a supervisor and an area manager – were fired after an internal investigation found the social worker hadn’t made regular visits to Jeremiah’s family in Fitchburg.
Republican candidate for governor Charlie Baker called Monday for Roche’s resignation.
“The commissioner should step down, and we should find someone who can go into that job and put fresh eyes on it and do the kind of top-to-bottom review, do the kind of basic work around protecting and keeping kids safe,” Baker said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Patrick has continued to back Roche, saying she was doing her job well under difficult circumstances.
“The work of DCF involves the toughest children in the toughest circumstances,” Patrick said Monday.
Coakley also said that the review of the agency should be done first. She said any time a high-profile mistake is made or a case garners attention, the urge is to say “let’s replace that person.”
“No one does that. The private sector doesn’t do that. The public sector doesn’t do that,” she said. “Accountability’s important, but let’s do what makes sense to keep kids safe.”
Coakley also responded to Baker’s call that she stop fighting a 2010 lawsuit filed by Children’s Rights, a New York-based child advocacy group that accused the state of violating the constitutional rights of thousands of children in the state’s foster care system by placing them in unstable and sometimes dangerous situations.
A federal judge ruled last fall in favor of the state, but Children’s Rights is appealing.
Baker said Coakley should advise the Patrick administration to settle the lawsuit and fix the problems.
Coakley defended her handling of the case.
“We represented the agency, which is our job, based upon facts which we believed was a fair representation. The judge dismissed that lawsuit and said on the law and the facts they did not have a case,” she said.
Coakley also said she doesn’t believe there’s any conflict between her office’s handling of that case and what she’s said as a candidate calling for changes at the family welfare agency.
Coakley has proposed creating a child protection division within DCF to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect with a sole focus on the safety of the children.