Update: Haleigh Poutre and the Strange Priorities of Massachusetts Legislators

Wesley Smith has an update on Haleigh Poutre, who apparently – and hopefully – will be spared having to testify in the trial of her stepfather, Jason Strickland. Haleigh Poutre narrowly escaped the death planned for her by medical professionals at Baystate Medical Center and publicly-appointed guardians from Massachussets DSS. These professionals all signed off and went to court to seek removal of both ventilator and feeding tube from Haleigh Poutre just 8 days after her admission to the hospital. Poutre was in a coma, the result of injuries allegedly inflicted on her by her adoptive mother and stepfather, Jason Strickland. (NDY issued a press release calling for a larger investigation than actually happened)

Poutre’s adoptive mother committed suicide. Strickland, quite probably to avoid being charged with murder, fought the DHS in court, seeking to have Poutre’s life-support maintained.

In a case of incredible irony, the case took enough time to allow Haleigh to improve. In fact, news reports that she was awake and responsive emerged just one day after a judge approved the removal of Haleigh Poutre’s feeding tube.

If you’re looking for a hero in this story, you can stop now. There aren’t any.

And, under the radar, the legislative response is far from encouraging.

Back in March, for example, almost no coverage was given to the inaptly named “Haleigh’s Amendment” that was introduced – and passed into law:

‘Haleigh’s Amendment’

During debate last week on legislation pertaining to the abuse and neglect of children, which is intended to strengthen the Commonwealth’s oversight of children under the charge of the State, an amendment written by Sen. Scott Brown, R-Wrentham, was passed unanimously. The amendment protects victims from those who have been charged with their abuse or neglect.

Brown filed “Haleigh’s Amendment” in response to the tragedy of the Haleigh Poutre case in Westfield in 2005. Haleigh had been hospitalized as the result of alleged abuse at the hands of her adoptive mother and stepfather who had burned and beaten her into a coma with a baseball bat. While on life support, Haleigh’s stepfather attempted to obtain guardianship of her even though he was suspected of the abuse.

This amendment would prohibit an individual from being appointed a guardian or medical proxy if they have been charged with assault and battery, or neglect of the incapacitated child. In this case, the amendment would have removed any ambiguity as soon as the stepfather was charged.

Currently, the court may appoint a guardian for a person who is unable to make or communicate informed decisions due to physical incapacity or illness.

Please re-read the above with the circumstances of Haleigh Poutre’s near-brush with death in mind.

If this law had existed when she was admitted to the hospital, she’d be dead now.

That’s right. She’d be dead. Jason Strickland, motives aside, would have had no standing to challenge the DSS-appointed guardians in court. Haleigh Poutre’s death would have proceeded smoothly, efficiently and – most important of all – quietly.

It’s easy to see how this prevents the State from being embarrassed in a similar way in the future. It’s less easy to see – using Haleigh Poutre’s story as the rationale – how this is seen as furthering the “best interests” of children.

And, while the abuse of Haleigh was especially horrific, this bill strips all rights in medical decisionmaking from parents who haven’t actually been convicted of anything – and the bill strips those rights even from those charged with any level of neglect.

To be fair, though, the legislature finally got around to passing some other measures that seem to actually attempt to add some protections to children in situations like Haleigh Poutre’s, but it wasn’t on a fast track like the first bill.

According to Thaddeus Pope at the Medical Futility Blog, this legislation, which would require written second opinions and an approval from an ethics committee, is still pending.

Pope also refers to these pieces of legislation – relevant to situations such as Haleigh Poutre’s – as “end of life.” I guess he’s making assumptions about the outcome or just not bothering to reflect on the irony of using the term in this context.

I haven’t had a chance to read this pending legislation yet, but I’m not confident an ethics committee at Baystate would have gone against the medical recommendations to end her life. Similarly, if written second opinions are to really mean something, they should come from a qualified medical professional outside the original one.

In short, it looks like Massachusetts has made significant steps in making sure that a case like Haleigh Poutre’s never comes to light again. They have yet to make steps to make sure that medical railroading and abandonment don’t actually occur. It’s clear from where I sit which was more important to the legislature – avoiding future embarrassment or actually protecting children. And what I see doesn’t make them look very good. –Stephen Drake

4 thoughts on “Update: Haleigh Poutre and the Strange Priorities of Massachusetts Legislators

  1. Hi there:

    I read stories like this with absolute disbelief. Not in thinking that you are not telling the truth, but that people could be so unbelievably stupid.

    Aren’t there “rules of thumb” about how long someone is in a coma vs the likelihood that they will come out of it all right? At least 60 or 90 days? So many people wake up within a couple of weeks, it seems, that anything less should be considered to be proposing murder or something.

    And how could anyone, in anyway possibly connected with a violent attack, be given any say in what happens to someone. Though as you point out, it worked in this child’s case.


    This is a topic that I have very mixed feelings on for myself, but I will hopefully resolve those by carefully written directions which will allow the choices that I want exercised, depending on various circumstances. I am glad that people are working on these topics, though, to ensure that stupidity and corruption are not allowed to hold sway in these important matters.

  2. I was close to the situation in Westfield as I lived in Southwick, one town south, and I sat next to Haleigh during some of her attendances at dance class as she danced with my daughter/vise verse. She wasn’t beat into a coma with a baseball bat! She was thrown down a set of cellar stairs numerous times until the last time it put her into a coma, among other injuries. And yes, that is correct, she would likely be dead if not for Jason Strictland filing for custody of her while she was in a hospital.

    Mr Strickland may have done this to save his ass in part, I can’t and will not dispute that, but if you look at the court documents, and also know how the situations took place when they did, You may say, like I do, that Mr Strickland was a patsy and DSS was desperate to lay the blame on someone other than their own incompetant neglectful care and oversight of this child. And, the hero here is Haleigh’ biological mother who visited her every day in the hospital and watched her closely relizing that Haleigh was responding to stimuli, so there most definetly is a hero here were it not for Haleigh’ true mother, Haleigh would likely be dead. And the evil person who actually beat and abused Haleigh was Jason Stricklands wife not Jason or anyone else.

    This is why the grandmother killed her then committed suicide. Because what she did was evil and against any moral or ethical actions one could ever bestow upon a child. And it was against God’ will for the grandmother to kill so she couldn’t live with the fact that she killed Haleigh’ adopted mother….In short Massachusetts DCF/DSS has not improved upon child oversite/care as indicated in the Oliver boy case where he was killed by his parents. Please get your facts straight before posting these opinions about such an important issue concerning children and situations that have taken place, or will in the future. Thank you

    1. I would really like to read the rest of what you have to say. Could you complete your comment?

      1. It takes alot of digging up a past with this and Westfield for me to recollect the details Stephen….Jason Strickland should have revealed something as he must have seen something, but I do not believe he inflicted abuse upon Haleigh…..Haleigh was a scared scared little girl who did not know who to go to for help. There was one incident where she ran away and hid in a closet in Noble Hospital. The evil women convinced DSS that her running away was part of her self-mutilating behavior and they bought it..The dance school (Dancer’s Image) she was enrolled in failed to see the signs of abuse and failed this little girl alsoEveryone who came in contact with Haleidh failed her as she was often out in the community. I read these news articles on her situation and really see how inaccurate they are when printing stuff that is inaccurate so they can sell papers…

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