State lawmakers want to question DSS commissioner

Date: 2006-01-22

Handling of Haleigh case draws Beacon Hill concerns

Michael Levenson
Boston Globe

Several Beacon Hill lawmakers say they will summon Social Services Commissioner Harry Spence to explain the department's oversight of Haleigh Poutre, 11, who has been on life support since she was allegedly beaten by her adoptive mother and stepfather.

Lawmakers want to question Spence about why he approved a decision by the Department of Social Services last fall to seek court permission to remove the Westfield girl from life support. Last week, after the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that life support could be withdrawn, the DSS disclosed that it had already seen hopeful signs that Haleigh might be emerging from her vegetative state.

"We are crossing all kinds of legal and ethical issues here," Representative Deborah D. Blumer said yesterday. "It really is very disturbing."

Blumer, a Framingham Democrat, said Haleigh's case points to longstanding problems in a department with a caseload of 40,000 children and nearly 10,000 in its custody. Blumer said the Committee on Children and Families, of which she is a member, is concerned the department is overburdened and prone to miss signs that children are being abused.

Spence's spokeswoman, Denise Monteiro, said the commissioner welcomes the chance to meet with legislators. She also defended his handling of the agency and Haleigh's case.

"Harry has taken the department and put a whole new face on it and he continues to do the hard work that needs to be done to change this department," Monteiro said. "One tragic incident is tragic and the way that he handled the investigation shows how much he really cares."

Lawmakers want to question Spence so "we can find out why -- what were the thought processes of not putting this child in a safer setting," said Representative Stephen P. LeDuc, a Marlborough Democrat and vice chairman of the Committee on Children and Families, which oversees DSS. "And the question should be posed to the commissioner as well as the other people responsible: What would they do differently today?"

Several lawmakers said they have confidence in Spence's leadership. "Commissioner Spence is one of the most sincere commissioners I've ever met," said Representative Marie J. Parente, a Milford Democrat and former foster child who chairs the Foster Care Committee, an ad-hoc panel that has already requested a meeting with Spence.

On Sept. 11, Haleigh was hospitalized for a brain injury, bruises, burns, and cuts. Prosecutors charged Haleigh's adoptive mother, Holli Strickland, and Strickland's husband, Jason, with assault. Before the case went to court, Holli Strickland died with her grandmother in an apparent murder-suicide.

DSS assumed custody of Haleigh, and on Sept. 30 the department went to court to withdraw the girl from life support. The SJC, in upholding a lower court order allowing removal of life support, said Haleigh "is in an irreversible and permanent coma, with the least amount of brain function that a person can have and still be considered alive."

Last Wednesday, the DSS disclosed that Haleigh's condition had improved, and said it had no immediate plans to withdraw life support. Appearing before a packed news conference Friday, Spence said he planned to seek outside medical advice on how to proceed with Haleigh's case.

LeDuc noted that the DSS first noticed Haleigh in 1998, when the agency took custody of her after reports that her mother's boyfriend had allegedly sexually abused her. The agency allowed Haleigh to live with Holli Strickland, as a foster child. In 2001, Strickland adopted Haleigh.

A year later, the DSS received a report that Haleigh was being abused in Strickland's home, and then between October 2002 and May 2005 the department received 15 more complaints of abuse or neglect. After investigations, officials determined most of the complaints lacked evidence to support the claims. Spence later said social workers and therapists mistakenly believed that Haleigh was a "deeply disturbed girl" who was injuring herself.

"Fifteen investigations should throw up a red flag," LeDuc said yesterday. "At some point this poor girl didn't have a chance."

Monteiro said the department is trying to learn from its mistakes.

"We have done extensive study on Haleigh and we see where some of the weaknesses were," she said. "We understand the sequence of events. The fact the she still fell through the net shows we still have a lot of work to do and he's not about to give up."

Respected by some on Beacon Hill as tough and smart, Spence recently told lawmakers he wants to reorganize the DSS "to create teams of social workers that would work on cases so that no case had only one social worker assigned and there would be some ability for staff to share with each other what they had observed," Blumer said.

Lawmakers are also facing pressure to consider Spence's suitability for the job. Yesterday, the Yellow Ribbon Kids Club, a Whitman-based group that advocates for foster children, released a letter to the House and Senate calling on Spence to resign for his handling of Haleigh's case and the case of Dontel Jeffers, a 4-year-old who died in foster care last year. Jeffers's foster mother, Corinne Stephen, was accused of second-degree murder in the death.

"Commissioner Spence has demonstrated that his concern is not for the safety of children in the Commonwealth, but his support is of those responsible for the tragic fate of these children," read the letter, signed by Susan Molina, the club's executive director.

No dates have been set for lawmakers' meetings with Spence


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