Accused stepfather fights to keep girl alive

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Date: 2005-11-06

WESTFIELD -- Haleigh Poutre, 11, clings to life in a hospital bed, her body sustained by breathing machines and feeding tubes.

The state, which now has legal custody of the child, wants to terminate her life support, citing medical tests that show she will never recover.

Her stepfather has launched a legal battle to keep her alive.

But more than Haleigh's future hinges on the outcome. The stepfather, Jason Strickland, 32, is accused of taking part in a savage beating that left the girl in a vegetative state and dependent on life support.

And if she dies, he could be charged with murder.

That fact has some people in this sprawling Western Massachusetts community questioning the stepfather's motivation to prolong Haleigh's life.

''Either he's acting as a caring, loving father," said Westfield police detective Michael McCabe, ''or he worries that if she dies, the charges change."

Haleigh has become the center of a passionate end-of-life debate complicated by the violent events that further tore her family apart shortly after she was hospitalized Sept. 11.

The only person who had legal rights to decide Haleigh's medical care was her maternal aunt, who had adopted the girl four years ago. But the aunt, Jason Strickland's wife, Holli, 31, was also accused of beating the girl. And, shortly after she and Jason Strickland were arrested on Sept. 20, Holli Strickland was found dead in a double shooting.

She was discovered alongside her grandmother's body in what police believe might have been a murder-suicide. She died that day, Sept. 22; police are still unsure who shot whom.

Now, Jason Strickland, who was released on bail Sept. 27, alone faces assault charges. Strickland says Haleigh was suffering from an emotional disorder, and that her injuries were self-inflicted. And he is trying to prove that he -- not the state -- should be Haleigh's guardian, to decide what is best for her future.

Strickland's attorney, Jack Egan, dismisses the notion that Strickland's attempt to extend Haleigh's life is aimed at minimizing his criminal charges.

''If he's guilty of having inflicted injury, he's going to receive a penalty that is extremely severe; I'm not sure how much more severe if it's murder," Egan said.

The state Department of Social Services, which took custody of Haleigh two months ago, is asking the courts to terminate her life-support systems, basing its appeal on doctors' opinions that she will not recover from her vegetative state. The department has also considered the desire of some of the girl's relatives, including Haleigh's maternal grandmother, Sandi Sudyka, and her biological mother, Allison Avrett, that she be allowed to die.

''Let's put her to rest," Sudyka said. ''I don't want her to live that way."

Determining Haleigh's condition has been difficult for family and friends. Judges have impounded medical records and ordered attorneys and physicians involved in Haleigh's medical decisions not to speak publicly about the case, which has been heard as high as the Supreme Judicial Court. Some information has been released, however, through open court records involving Strickland's criminal case, and relatives and family friends have gathered some facts based on briefings by DSS and police.

Police records from late September describe Haleigh as being in a ''permanent vegetative state" with a sheared brain stem. Other court records refer to Haleigh as being ''virtually brain dead." As recently as last week, relatives who visited her said they saw a ventilator and feeding tube attached to her.

Many in town compare Haleigh's case to the plight of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who was on life support for 15 years before a court ordered her feeding tube removed this spring. Schiavo died 13 days later.

State social service officials declined to confirm how they want to terminate Haleigh's life support -- by removing her feeding tubes, turning off her ventilator, or both.

Relatives say the battle over Haleigh's life-support systems is a heart-wrenching turn in the life of a girl who once danced as beautifully as she smiled.

Haleigh came to live with Holli Strickland seven years ago, after her biological mother, Avrett, was deemed by the state to be an unfit parent -- a decision Avrett disputes. A high school dropout, Avrett had been raising Haleigh alone when DSS encouraged her to place Haleigh, then 4, with Avrett's older sister, Holli Strickland, who had an associate's degree in early childhood education.

When Haleigh turned 7, Holli Strickland adopted her. Strickland briefly ran a family day-care center, and had a daughter with her first husband, Jonathan Poutre. She adopted Haleigh while she was married to Poutre, and gave the girl his last name. Holli Strickland also had a son with her second husband, Jason Strickland.

Holli Strickland told some relatives that Haleigh was emotionally unstable. She also said she had pulled Haleigh out of public schools within the last two years, choosing to home school her. A year ago, DSS questioned the Stricklands when a healthcare worker noticed injuries on Haleigh. But social workers at the time concluded that at least some of the injuries were self-inflicted. Holli Strickland told the same to relatives who noticed bruises, or explained them as part of child play.

Over the past year, friends and family saw Haleigh less often. She showed up less frequently at her dance classes, religious school at St. Mary's Parish in Westfield, and family gatherings, relatives said. Still, relatives believed that the Stricklands were good parents to their three children. He supported the family with his job as an auto mechanic, while she was a stay-at-home mom who sent out Christmas cards and decorated their modest white home with a ''Welcome" banner at the front steps.

On Sept. 11, the couple brought Haleigh in ''an unresponsive state" to Noble Hospital in Westfield, according to court documents.

''Haleigh had both old and new bruises, old and new open cuts, several apparent weeping burns, and a CAT scan revealed a subdural hematoma [a collection of blood on the surface of the brain]," according to the police report by Westfield detective McCabe.

When questioned about the girl's injuries, Jason Strickland said ''he had no knowledge of them or how they occurred," the report continued.

''Given the extent of the injuries, his not having any knowledge was difficult to believe," the police report said.

Court documents show that police located a witness who said Holli Strickland had beaten Haleigh with various objects, including a baseball bat, and had thrown the girl down the stairs. The police report said the witness, who is unnamed in court documents, also described Jason Strickland striking the girl with an open hand or a ''plastic wand." The beatings allegedly took place in the Strickland home, and court officials said that at least one witness is a baby sitter who was at the house.

On Sept. 20, police arrested the couple and both were held on $25,000 bail. Hours later, one of Holli Strickland's relatives bailed her out. She went to Springfield to stay with her grandmother, Constance Young, 71.

Two days later, the two women were found in pools of blood in Young's bed. Young was pronounced dead at the scene, and Strickland died on the way to the hospital. The gun belonged to Young; police are awaiting ballistic and medical tests before concluding what transpired that day.

As Haleigh's hospital stay enters its ninth week, state officials have launched an internal investigation into how they could have failed to notice that Haleigh was being abused.

''We ask this question every day," said Denise Monteiro, spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services, which also has taken custody of the two other children who were in the Strickland home.

As Haleigh's guardian, the state is paying for her round-the-clock medical care, state authorities said. Officials at Baystate Medical Center declined to comment on costs for any particular patient, but said a typical patient in the pediatric intensive care unit incurs charges of about $4,000 day.

Haleigh's family members say Jason Strickland continues to work as an auto mechanic. He is also preparing with his lawyers for a hearing in his criminal case set for next month.

Relatives and family friends say they ask about Haleigh's condition daily. They say they are trying to raise money to help cover funeral costs and memorials, if and when they become necessary. John Gamelli, whose daughter once played with Haleigh, said he and some family members have set up a fund for her at the United Bank in Westfield.

Ron Drewnowski, a seminarian at St. Mary's Parish, where the Stricklands attended church, helped organize a vigil in Haleigh's honor. He said he had visited her at the hospital about six weeks ago, and she was lying in the bed, surrounded by stuffed animals. Her eyes were closed.

''I still pray for her," he said.

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.

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