Legal Battle Looms over Girl on Life Support

Massachusetts state officials want to remove a girl from life support over the objections of a stepfather who has not legally adopted her — and who is among those charged with physically abusing her. From member station WFCR, Jill Kaufman reports.

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In Massachusetts, an 11-year-old girl lies in a hospital bed, beaten to the point that doctors say she will never regain consciousness, and nearly all of Haleigh Poutre's closest relatives are accused of abusing her in one way or another. Now the man she called her stepfather is fighting to keep her on life support even as he fights in court charges that he assaulted her. If Haleigh Poutre is allowed to die, WFCR's Jill Kaufman reports, her stepfather could face a murder charge.

JILL KAUFMAN reporting:

The state of Massachusetts has been watching Haleigh Poutre and her family for years. It removed Haleigh from her biological mother's home amid allegations of sexual abuse by her mother's boyfriend. It approved her adoption by Haleigh's aunt in 2001. Then last year, after someone reported seeing bruises on Haleigh, a state social worker began making regular visits. Haleigh's biological mother, Allison Avrett, has not been completely out of touch with her daughter. Avrett says cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents visit frequently. She describes Haleigh as a very loving child.

Ms. ALLISON AVRETT (Haleigh's Mother): She was a very motherly--protective of, you know, the brother and sister in the house. She was a people-pleaser. Loved her dancing.

KAUFMAN: Avrett says Haleigh just received a five-year merit award from her dance school. But that award couldn't shield the girl from what appears to have been ongoing abuse allegedly at the hands of her adoptive mother, Holli Strickland, and Strickland's husband, Jason. Sometime on the evening of Saturday, September 10th, according to doctors, Haleigh was hit in the head with a blunt object. She was knocked out and never regained consciousness. When she was admitted to the hospital, Haleigh's face was swollen, her teeth were broken and she was emaciated. Her temperature was in the eighties and her blood pressure was low. According to doctors' testimony, her brain stem had been sheered off.

The State Department of Social Services took legal custody of Haleigh. Holli and Jason Strickland were charged with assault and battery. Holli Strickland posted bail and was later found dead alongside the body of her grandmother in what investigators believe was a suicide-murder pact. Soon after that, a juvenile court judge gave the state permission to disconnect Haleigh's life support.

Jason Strickland maintains his innocence. His lawyers say Strickland has provided for and lived with Haleigh for the past four years, he should have a say in her medical care and he's taken his case to the state's highest court in order to keep Haleigh on life support.

Mr. EDWARD McDONOUGH (Attorney for Jason Strickland): Now the cynical view is that the stepfather is taking action to keep her alive to avoid a first-degree murder charge.

KAUFMAN: Strickland's attorney, Edward McDonough, says because there are no family members involved in Haleigh's medical care and documents in the juvenile court case are confidential, he maintains no one really knows why the state is rushing to end Haleigh's life support.

Mr. McDONOUGH: You could also speculate that: Is the government looking to end this child's life because the government is footing the medical bills?

KAUFMAN: McDonough believes Strickland meets the requirements of a de facto parent.

Mr. McDONOUGH: The child has lived with the stepfather. There is evidence that she called him daddy, that she referred to his parents as grandpa and grandma, that he provided significant financial support to the child even though he was under no legal obligation to do so.

KAUFMAN: That's not enough, says Lisa Kling(ph). She's Haleigh Poutre's state-appointed attorney. She made the case yesterday, at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, that Strickland does not meet the standards of a parent. Kling contends that the charges against Strickland prevent him from behaving in Haleigh's best interest.

Ms. LISA KLING (State-Appointed Attorney for Haleigh): And here we have a child with a lot of serious injuries who is in a persistent vegetative state, who, at the very least--this particular individual, at the very least, failed to protect her, and, at the very most, he's responsible for her. How can it be in her best interests for this individual to be involved in the medical decision-making of this job?

KAUFMAN: The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will decide whether Strickland will be allowed to participate in the decision about Haleigh's life support. But even if the court grants him that right, it's not certain she'll be kept alive. Virginia Peel, the attorney for the State's Department of Social Services, reminded the justices that this case isn't about keeping Haleigh living when she has no chance of ever waking up again.

Ms. VIRGINIA PEEL (Attorney for the State Department of Social Services): This is about the circumstances under which this person is going to be allowed to die.

KAUFMAN: If Haleigh dies, Strickland could face a murder charge, though state prosecutors have not said whether they would pursue that. For NPR News, I'm Jill Kaufman.

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