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.

"It was the sort of injury, [doctors] testified, that they see after a high-speed car accident, where the brain inside the skull is subjected to tremendous acceleration and deceleration forces," prosecutor Laurel H. Brandt told a judge during a hearing in the criminal case against Jason Strickland, 31, an auto mechanic.

After Haleigh entered the hospital, both Jason and Holli Strickland were charged with assault and battery. Then came a twist: On Sept. 22, Holli and her grandmother Constance Young, 71, were found fatally shot in Young's apartment in West Springfield.

Authorities have not released many details about their deaths, but they have said the cases are two suicides or a homicide and a suicide. West Springfield police Sgt. Jeff Harlow said that notes were found at the scene that could point to a pact between the women.

That left Jason Strickland as the remaining defendant, though it is not clear whether prosecutors think he caused Haleigh's injuries himself, or simply stood by as Holli Strickland abused her. Both situations could lead to assault and battery charges under Massachusetts law.

Haleigh is now in a Springfield hospital bed, and doctors have been quoted in court papers saying that because of her brain injury she "has no possibility of regaining a meaningful existence."

A few weeks after her injury, the state -- having taken custody of Haleigh -- received a judge's permission to withdraw her breathing and feeding tubes. Monteiro, the state spokeswoman, said family members and doctors were consulted in this decision.

But Strickland objected, saying that Haleigh should be kept alive for reasons including her Catholic faith, which opposes euthanasia.

Now, despite his criminal charges and the fact that he never legally adopted Haleigh, Strickland has demanded that he have some say in her care because he is a "de facto parent."

"There are no adults left in this child's life," said Edward J. McDonough, one of Strickland's attorneys. "The only adult left with a relationship is her stepfather, and he has been accused."

At the state's high court, however, Strickland's attorneys seemed to find a hostile welcome for the argument that he had a substantial parental relationship with Haleigh.

"That's not going to do it," Marshall, the chief justice, responded.

The court could take weeks or months to announce its decision; in the meantime, Haleigh will remain on life support. Two other children living in the household are now in state custody.

In the background of all of this is the effect that Haleigh's death may have on the charges against Strickland. The district attorney's office has declined to comment on whether they could be upgraded to murder.

But legal experts said that might be possible -- even if prosecutors allege that his wife committed the fatal assault.

"If he stood by and didn't prevent her, he could be guilty of first-degree murder as well," said Stanley Z. Fisher, a professor of law at Boston University.

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 is on life support after a beating in which her adoptive mother and stepfather were charged.