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WEB EXCLUSIVE | JOAN VENNOCHI

Who failed Haleigh Poutre?

GET THE picture?

This week, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney announced the appointment of a commission to look into the case of Haleigh Poutre, an 11-year-old girl beaten into a coma while under the care of the Department of Social Services.

But, first things first: As the press waited for the governor, an aide officiously banned unsightly clutter from the podium to which Romney would stride. A tiny table was brought out to hold tape recorders and microphones below camera level. That ensured a clear shot of a governor and prospective presidential candidate calling for action about a horrific story that is gaining attention beyond Massachusetts.

The action Romney called for -- creation of a commission -- is minimal and comes four months too late. This battered child has been in critical condition since September. Follow the timeline and it appears that Haleigh's tragic story caught Romney's interest right after it caught the interest of "right to life" advocates.

After doctors concluded that Haleigh was "virtually brain dead," state officials sought a legal order to withdraw life support. They were challenged by lawyers for Haleigh's stepfather, who could face murder charges if she dies. Last week, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that life-support systems could be removed, saying the child should be able to "pass away with dignity."

The day after the SJC ruling, state officials said that the girl might be emerging from her vegetative state; they now have no plans to remove her feeding tube. This admittedly mysterious medical turnaround triggered a column from commentator Michelle Malkin, headlined, "Haleigh Wants To Live." Wrote Malkin, in typical conservative soap opera fashion: "This is a huge story, a wakeup call to "right-to-die" ideologues who recklessly put such trust in the medical profession and Nanny State." She updated the column with news of Romney's investigation.

On the Fox News Network, both Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly are also following the story. (Both pointed out the conflict of interest involving the stepfather, Jason Strickland, and his desire to keep this little girl alive.)

Perhaps three separate probes -- Romney's, plus one by DSS and one by a legislative panel -- will get to the bottom of who failed Haleigh. And it should be a huge story -- but more than a wakeup call to "right-to-die" ideologues," to use Malkin's derisive term. It should be a wakeup call to everyone who believes in a child's right to live with dignity -- before they end up in a hospital emergency room burned, battered, and beaten.

"I believe that the people in DSS did what they believed was right. No human is omniscient. But I wonder whether any changes in protocol or procedure may reduce the likelihood of error in the future," said Romney in his press statement.

It is also fair to wonder whether different gubernatorial priorities might reduce the likelihood of error in the future. Put "Romney" and "Department of Social Services" into the Boston Globe database and you don't get much. What mostly comes up are stories about agency consolidation as a way to increase efficiency and cut costs.

According to the governor's spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, DSS funding has increased since Romney took office -- from $670 million in fiscal 2003 to $744 million in fiscal 2006. Romney's budget for fiscal 2007 will propose another increase. "In Haleigh's case, there doesn't seem to be a resource issue," said Fehrnstrom, repeating a Romney mantra. When 4-year-old Dontel Jeffers died from horrific injuries while living in foster care in Dorchester last March, Fehrnstrom wrote in a letter to the editor: "The death of Dontel Jeffers was tragic and is now the subject of investigation, but it certainly was not the result of reductions in social service funding under Governor Romney." At the time, DSS Commissioner Harry Spence said the agency budget has not kept pace with inflation and a growing caseload.

So, maybe money is not the only answer. Maybe the second part of the answer is for governors -- and the rest of us -- to focus more regularly on the plight of the Haleighs and Dontels who are under state care; to think more urgently of the human beings who need protection, not only of the bureaucracies in need of paring down.

Romney said he read Haleigh Poutre's DSS file over the weekend. Its 45 pages are filled with detailed evaluations and entries, documenting 10 years of life in an evil parallel universe most of us prefer to ignore. It is an ugly picture. The only hope of changing it for other children is to pay attention to it before Fox News comes calling.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail is vennochi@globe.com.

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