Hearings open on child abuse
BOSTON - The commissioner of the state Department of Social Services yesterday said the agency wanted to remove Haleigh Poutre from her abusive home, but was thwarted by medical professionals who insisted the girl's wounds were self-inflicted.
During the first meeting of a new legislative panel investigating child abuse, Lewis H. Spence, commissioner of the agency since 2001, said social workers were aware the child was suffering from some severe injuries. The girl's treatment team, including doctors, psychiatrists and pediatricians, blocked the agency from separating the child from the adoptive mother and stepfather who were later charged with abusing her, Spence said.
"We were the only party pressing to remove the child from her home and were deeply impeded by the treatment team," Spence said, after he was questioned by Rep. Stephen P. LeDuc, D-Marlboro, a panel member.
Over several years, the department received 17 complaints of abuse and neglect of Haleigh while she was living with her adoptive family, raising questions about the department's failure to move the girl to a safer setting. In each case of reported abuse, medical professionals continued to say the girl caused the injuries to herself, Spence said.
Haleigh, 12, now recuperating in a Boston rehabilitation center for children, was hospitalized on Sept. 11, 2005, for a brain injury, bruises, burns and cuts.
Her adoptive mother and stepfather, Jason D. Strickland, were arrested and charged with assault and battery. The adoptive mother, Holli A. Strickland, died on Sept. 22 in West Springfield. Police believe she was killed by her grandmother in a murder-suicide.
Strickland faces six charges of assault and battery.
The department took custody of the child after she was hospitalized in 2005.
Spence said the department is hiring a chief medical officer. That means the department will have a doctor "on our side" when it questions the findings of medical professionals caring for abused children, Spence said.
The legislative panel also might recommend how to resolve disputes between the department and medical providers.
Spence acknowledged the department erred when Holli Strickland adopted Haleigh in 2001. Too many professionals were involved with the family, and responsibility was fragmented, he said.
"Each saw a little piece of the story and couldn't put the pieces together," Spence said. "It's true that had all the pieces been put together at that time, we would have had much more serious questions about the adoption."
Spence said he is organizing team-based child-welfare workers to improve services and communication.
Spence said the department has 11,000 children in its custody. The department works with an additional 29,000 children who are in families where there are concerns about safety, he said.
The case of Haleigh Poutre and other severely abused children sparked public outrage and led to creation of the panel, called the House Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect.
The panel was scheduled to take testimony from 11 officials and experts yesterday. The panel will examine the successes and failures of the state's child welfare system and make recommendations that take into account the often-conflicting needs to protect children and preserve families.
The panel also will investigate the state's role when it makes end-of-life decisions for children in its custody.
Haleigh almost died when the state social services department moved to end her life support eight days after she was hospitalized and six days after obtaining temporary custody of her.
Edward J. Malloy Jr., president of a union chapter for 2,700 social workers at the agency, testified that social workers are hampered by annual turnover of 18 to 25 percent.
Malloy said social workers are also often burdened with too many cases, driving some out of the profession. At the start of yesterday's hearing, House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, D-Boston, said the state has the third-highest rate of confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect in the country, citing statistics from the Massachusetts Children's Trust Fund.
"The number of children confirmed as abused and neglected - 35,214 children - would fill Fenway Park," DiMasi said. "Half were age 7 and younger."
Spence said Massachusetts is far more aggressive than other states in issuing findings of abuse and neglect of children.
DiMasi said the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight found some "glaring weaknesses" in the child welfare system when it issued a report on Haleigh's case in June.
The committee found that "a systemic lack of coordination and communication" may have put Haleigh in harm's way.
A special commission, named by former Gov. W. Mitt Romney, reported in March that Haleigh was let down by "a systemic failure" on the part of the state and private health providers.
"Our children deserve to be cared for," DiMasi said. "They deserve to be protected, and they deserve to be free from the fear and risk of being harmed."
The House panel is set to hear testimony again on Tuesday at the Statehouse. Its final hearing will be on Feb. 6 at the Statehouse, with the afternoon set aside for public comment.