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Republican candidate for governor Charlie Baker called on Monday for the resignation of the head of the state's embattled Department of Children and Families, citing the need for a top-to-bottom review of the department, heavily criticized since the disappearance of a little boy who's now feared dead.
The department has been under scrutiny since social workers lost track of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver. 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, 45 miles northwest of Boston.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Baker said the administration of Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick was taking a reactive, rather than proactive, approach to the crisis. Baker said department Commissioner Olga Roche should leave her job.
"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," said Baker, who lost to Patrick in the 2010 gubernatorial election.
Patrick, who is not seeking re-election, 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. "At any given time you can pick out stories of tragedy and try to run somebody out of office on account of it."
Patrick has asked the Child Welfare League of America to conduct an independent review of the agency.
Baker, a former chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, served as health and human services secretary under Republican Gov. William Weld in the 1990s. He called last month for the release of region-by-region data on social worker caseload and abuse reports but stopped short at the time of calling for Roche to resign.
Baker also said Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, should 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.
The attorney general 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.
Coakley campaign spokesman Kyle Sullivan said the attorney general has a long record of protecting children and has put forward a "real plan" for reforming DCF.
The Boston Globe, citing 2012 data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Massachusetts ranked 38 out of 50 states in the percent of foster children visited each month by caseworkers.
Patrick cited flaws in the data but acknowledged the state could do better.
Associated Press writer Steve LeBlanc contributed to this report.