Custody Battle Is Waged Over Comatose Girl

Haleigh Poutre's grandmother Sandra Sudyka, left, and Haleigh's birth mother, Allison Avrett, with daughter Hannah, at home in Westfield, Mass. Haleigh was removed from Avrett's care when she was about 4 because of neglect allegations and was sent to live with an aunt.
Haleigh Poutre's grandmother Sandra Sudyka, left, and Haleigh's birth mother, Allison Avrett, with daughter Hannah, at home in Westfield, Mass. Haleigh was removed from Avrett's care when she was about 4 because of neglect allegations and was sent to live with an aunt. (By Nathan K. Martin -- Associated Press)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 12, 2005

BOSTON -- During her 11 years of living, nobody seemed to care very much as Haleigh Poutre shifted from home to home and abuse to horrifying abuse. But now, when the only questions left seem to be when and how she will die, this little girl finally has everyone's attention.

Haleigh, who has been in a coma since September because of an injury to her brain stem, is now the focus of a court battle here that combines the most tragic kind of child custody dispute with wrenching questions about how to end a life.

On one side is the state of Massachusetts, whose social-service system failed to prevent Haleigh's abuse and is now seeking to remove her life support.

On the other is Haleigh's stepfather, Jason Strickland, whose wife adopted the girl and who has been charged in her abuse. He believes the girl should be kept alive -- but he also might be prosecuted for murder if she is not.

"Your client has, at very minimum, a profound conflict of interest in this case," said Margaret H. Marshall, chief justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court, addressing a lawyer for the stepfather during a hearing here last week.

Haleigh's life seems to have been troubled almost from the beginning: In 1998, when she was about 4, she was removed from her birth mother because of neglect allegations. Haleigh went to live with her aunt, Holli Strickland, in the western Massachusetts town of Westfield.

"This seemed to be an okay match," said Denise Monteiro, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services.

In 2001, Strickland formally adopted Haleigh. But life in her home turned out to be chaotic and violent, according to recent court testimony.

A babysitter, Alicia Weiss, testified earlier this month at the criminal proceeding for Jason Strickland that she had once seen Holli Strickland repeatedly kick Haleigh down a flight of stairs and another time saw her club the girl in the leg with a baseball bat.

"Holli told Haleigh to get up again, and she did the same thing a few more times," Weiss testified, according to a transcript of the hearing. Weiss said Holli Strickland was angry because Haleigh had stolen and hidden food.

Weiss also testified that she had been present when Holli's husband, Jason Strickland, had struck Haleigh with an open hand and with a piece of plastic.

These allegations came to light only later, however, after Haleigh suffered far more devastating injuries. On Sept. 11, according to court papers, she was brought to a hospital with broken teeth, burns on her chest, an open wound in the back of her head and a temperature in the 80s. The most serious injury was a "shearing" of the girl's brain stem, according to prosecutors.


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