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Protecting children became a turning point for Coakley

By Patricia Wen
Globe Staff / January 8, 2010

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Second of two articles exploring defining themes in the lives of the major-party US Senate candidates.

She was 37, a relatively new prosecutor in Middlesex County, a woman who loved the rough-and-tumble of courtroom drama.

Martha Coakley wanted murder trials.

But on a spring day nearly two decades ago, her boss, District Attorney Thomas F. Reilly, stunned Coakley by asking whether she would fill a vacancy as head of the office’s child abuse unit.

Many prosecutors saw the unit as a backwater. The staff operated out of a toy-filled rental space in a shopping center. The lawyers toiled on heartbreakingly grim cases, many of which ended in plea bargains.

“Let me think about it,’’ a reluctant Coakley said.

But a week later, she accepted the post, and her seven years in that secluded location became a turning point in her professional and personal life.

Child protection became an enduring theme of her career. By her own account, and that of others, Coakley, now the state’s attorney general and the Democratic nominee for US Senate, found her knack for leadership there.

Her last-minute role helping to prosecute British nanny Louise Woodward propelled her into national prominence, while her decisions to pursue, delay, or drop other child abuse cases against priests and others thrust her into contro versy.

Her passion for work took on new momentum at this time, even as she coped with some profound personal losses. And during this time, thoughts about returning to a more lucrative private practice, or getting married and starting a family of her own, receded in importance.

“Like many things I’ve done, once I vet it and I say OK, then I own it,’’ Coakley, 56, replied in a 90-minute interview at her campaign headquarters in Charlestown, less than a mile from her former child abuse unit. “I’m going to make this work.’’

Growing up in a large North Adams family, Coakley was always comfortable around children. But working with social workers, pediatricians, and mental health specialists, she became an expert on how to talk with - and understand - vulnerable children who had experienced the darkest of betrayals. In her first months on the job, she was stunned to realize how often children were targets of physical and sexual assault, including by adults they trusted.

“It was clear to me that kids were being abused in numbers that we didn’t know before,’’ she said.

This work coincided with a particularly difficult three-year period in her private life: In 1993, her father died, in 1995, her mother died, and in 1996, her only brother, who had battled mental illness, committed suicide.

Coakley’s co-workers knew “she was in mourning,’’ according to Lea Savely, a child interview specialist in the child abuse unit, but throughout this period Coakley came to work always “put-together and polished,’’ Savely said.

Only years later, Coakley began to open up about the impact of her own grief on her work to protect children. Debbie Eappen, whose 8-month-old son, Matthew, died in the care of the British nanny, said that years after the trial ended, Coakley confided that she knew something about how a family goes on after a child dies. Eappen, who has three other children, said the conversation with Coakley made her realize that the prosecutor brought her own painful personal experiences to work, even though she had rarely talked about them on the job.

Coakley now says that, while she led the child abuse unit in the 1990s, she did wonder whether she would ever have children of her own. She said her parents - her father was an insurance agent and her mother a homemaker - had always encouraged all five of their children to pursue higher education and meaningful careers.

Coakley, a graduate of Williams College and Boston University Law School, believes she did just that, while being open to marriage and children if those things came her way.

“I never saw marriage as a goal post,’’ Coakley said. “It happened or didn’t happen.’’

As it turned out, Coakley would get married at 47, several years after leaving the child abuse unit, and not have children.

She says she is happy with how her life has unfolded, saying that, given the demands of trial work and the challenges facing women of her generation, she could not have accomplished all that she has if she had juggled work with raising children.

While in the child abuse unit, she observed that staff members who were also parents did have some advantages - for example, some knew from experience how a typical 3-year-old might speak. However, Coakley said, not having her own children helped her avoid “preconceptions’’ about how children behave and enabled her to devote more time to working.

The early 1990s was a time of heightened sensitivity to re-traumatizing children during police interrogations, and each year, Coakley’s unit was flooded with more than 900 case referrals for potential prosecution. Only a decade earlier, the state had set up its first child-protection agency, the Department of Social Services, and laws required doctors, teachers, and day-care workers, among others, to tell state authorities about suspected cases of maltreatment.

Coakley’s position running the child abuse unit marked her first major supervisory job, and she oversaw a staff of about two dozen workers, eight of whom were lawyers. Coakley also had to master the art of getting hard-bitten police officers to work with warm-and-fuzzy social workers.

She routinely made tough decisions.

In 1994, she chose not to force an 11-year-old boy to testify against a popular Woburn priest accused of molesting him, largely because the boy’s mother didn’t want him to be traumatized by the courtroom experience, Reilly said. Coakley also recalled that the boy just before trial, had begun to recant some of his testimony. The priest, the Rev. Paul Manning, was acquitted, and his supporters applauded the verdict, as a dejected Coakley left the courtroom. Reilly says that, despite the result, Coakley “acted in the best interest of that child.’’

A year later, her unit learned that four Lowell brothers, between the ages of 8 and 11, had alleged they were repeatedly drugged, as well as sexually and physically abused, by their parents. In that case, the boys took the stand, giving such devastating accounts that some spectators had to leave the courtroom. The boys’ testimony helped lead to the conviction of both parents, even as the boys expressed concern for them; one exited the courtroom saying, “Bye, Mom.’’

“They were looking at their parents, crying,’’ recalled Coakley. “It was one of the toughest cases I’ve ever had.’’

In the spring of 1997, after nearly seven years in the $60,000-a-year job, Coakley decided she needed a break from the child abuse unit.

She turned her Dorchester home into a campaign headquarters for a state representative seat. Coakley finished fourth in a field of six, but she impressed many as an articulate first-time campaigner. She returned to the district attorney’s office, where, as it would turn out, another major opportunity awaited.

Woodward, the 19-year-old British nanny, was set to go to trial in a shaken-baby case that captivated the nation. Prosecutors accused Woodward of causing severe brain injuries to the Newton infant, while his parents, both physicians, were at work.

Coakley was not initially assigned to the case, but when one of the prosecutors, Lynn Rooney, went on maternity leave, she stepped in. The case triggered debates on working women, social class, and child abuse, and drew attention to Coakley’s skills as a prosecutor, public communicator, and advocate for children and families.

This case, built on medical forensic evidence, was more like the classic murder case that she was always eager to tackle. And, unlike in some of her earlier cases, she did not have to grapple with putting a child on the stand, because the victim in this case had died.

Dr. Lois Smith, a pediatric ophthalmologist from Children’s Hospital who testified that the baby’s eye injuries were caused by severe shaking, said Coakley showed an impressive mastery of medical details, as well as having just the right “sympathetic demeanor’’ for this sensitive case.

And Martin Murphy, the then-first assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, recalled that Coakley’s telegenic presence and talent for thinking quickly on her feet became clear.

“She was extraordinarily gifted at dealing with the public,’’ Murphy said.

In 1998, Reilly ran for attorney general, and Coakley jumped into the race to succeed him as Middlesex district attorney. She won the race; during the campaign, she also met Thomas F. O’Connor, a Cambridge deputy police superintendent who gave $100 to her campaign. Two years later, Coakley and O’Connor married.

Today, Coakley sees her assignment to the child abuse unit as a fortuitous career break. She credits Reilly with giving her the opportunity that propelled her career, and now, she says, one of her great joys is mentoring younger lawyers.

“It’s how you pass things along,’’ she said. “You do it with your kids, I do it with my nieces and nephews and my grandnieces and nephews. You do it with your colleagues.

“The young attorneys coming into the AG’s office. I make it a point to interview every attorney. . . . I try to encourage them and say: This is great stuff.’’

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.