|Haleigh Poutre can speak some words.|
Haleigh Poutre, a young girl who was so close to death after a beating that state officials sought to remove her life support, has recovered to the extent that she is communicating painful memories and might be able to testify against one of her alleged abusers, according to a court document and a person familiar with her medical case.
"She could be a terrific witness," said the source, who asked not to be identified because of a court prohibition against speaking to the media about the case. "She's recalling most of the past."
The dramatic turnaround in the physical and intellectual status of the 14-year-old Westfield girl sets up the possibility of a climactic moment in a child abuse prosecution that has shaken the medical and social service communities for the past two years: The girl, who was once considered "virtually brain dead" by doctors and was the center of a passionate end-of-life case, could take the witness stand to provide critical testimony against her stepfather, Jason Strickland, who is accused of beating her.
Haleigh might not be alive today if it were not for her stepfather's efforts to keep her alive, after the state sought to remove her life support shortly after the comatose girl was brought to a Westfield hospital on Sept. 11, 2005, by Haleigh's adoptive mother and Strickland.
The state won approval from the Supreme Judicial Court to disconnect a ventilator and a feeding tube, but before doctors took any action, she began breathing on her own and responding to commands.
It remains unclear exactly how well Haleigh communicates now, but the girl, who has been in stable condition at a Brighton rehabilitation hospital since January 2006, is able to give hand signals, speak some words, and use a computer keyboard, said the source, who has attended some meetings where the girl's case was discussed.
Haleigh is also enrolled at the day school located at the Franciscan Hospital for Children in Brighton, said Wendy Murphy, a lawyer for Haleigh's biological mother.
The first indication that Haleigh might testify as a prosecution witness against her stepfather came in a Jan. 31 court filing by the stepfather's defense lawyer, Alan Black. Asking for a new trial date in the case, Black said that he had recently received new child-abuse reports, called 51A reports, from the Hampden district attorney's office that contained new allegations against Strickland.
"It appears from the 51A that the victim is now making statements alleging abuse by the defendant," Black wrote in a motion filed in Hampden Superior Court, first reported yesterday by the Springfield Republican newspaper. "This creates issues concerning competency and her ability to testify and recall events in light of her severe head trauma. All of this needs to be explored with an extensive series of discovery motions."
In fact, Haleigh's communication skills have been improving for some time. According to the source, about six months after she was moved to the Franciscan Hospital, the girl began to express fears and reservations about seeing her biological mother, Allison Avrett, and her maternal grandmother, Sandi Sudyka, both of whom had for months been granted regular visits at the rehabilitation hospital. The source said that clinicians at the hospital responded to Haleigh's fears by restricting, and then suspending all visits by the two women.
Avrett relinquished custody of Haleigh to her sister, Holli Strickland, when the child was 4, after the state Department of Social Services accused Avrett of being an unfit mother. Avrett disputes that she was ever a bad mother and says she now regrets giving up custody.
Since last summer, the source said, Haleigh's memory recall has included past mistreatment, including some allegedly involving her stepfather. Under state law, professionals who work with children are required to file 51A reports if they hear about a suspected case of child abuse or neglect. In an ongoing criminal case, those reports are then brought to the prosecutor's attention.
The possibility of Haleigh testifying is the latest twist in a case that first gained widespread notice when DSS, accepting doctors' opinions that her brain injuries left her in a hopeless, comatose state, began seeking court approval to withdraw life support.
When Jason Strickland fought in court to keep the girl alive, DSS dismissed his pleas as a calculated effort to avoid a murder charge. (Haleigh's adoptive mother killed herself shortly after the couple was charged with beating her.) On Jan. 17, 2006, DSS won approval from the state's highest court to withdraw life support; a day later, the agency announced that doctors at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield had noticed Haleigh was breathing on her own.
Within two weeks, Haleigh was transferred to the rehabilitation hospital with an inconclusive prognosis. Meanwhile, top officials in the state's judiciary, child-protection system and medical community agonized over their role in the near-death of a girl who in hindsight clearly still had life in her.
Few details have emerged about what went wrong. Juvenile Court Judge James Collins, who had presided over the end-of-life case, has strongly enforced his court order preventing any parties from speaking publicly about the case.
The secrecy has led to frustration among some family members who say Collins and other top state officials are trying to cover up their errors in judging Haleigh's condition to be hopeless.
Murphy said yesterday that Avrett's visits with Haleigh were suspended in retaliation for Avrett's outspoken criticism of DSS, not because Haleigh was upset about seeing her.
Officials with DSS and the Hampden district attorney's office declined to comment yesterday.
Questions about Haleigh's state of mind will probably be a major issue if the prosecutor seeks to call her as a witness in the trial now set for Oct. 16, said Robert Griffin, a Boston defense lawyer and a former state prosecutor.
He said judges must first determine if the witness is competent to testify, asking such things as whether the witness knows truth from fiction and that it is wrong to lie under oath.
Defense lawyers in Haleigh's case could also challenge the reliability of her memory and, in particular, raise the possibility that her memory recall of her stepfather is being confused with another man in her life, a former boyfriend of her biological mother's, also named Jason, who was accused in the past of abusing her.
But that theory does not make sense, said Murphy. She said that the former boyfriend knew Haleigh only she was 4 and that she called him Daddy J.
Patricia Wen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.