Massachusetts state can pull plug on comatose 11-year-old girl
Jan 19, 2006 - 3:22:37 PM

Not much remains of Haleigh Poutre's life: Once a chestnut-haired girl who took dancing classes, the 11-year-old has been in a coma since her adoptive mother and stepfather allegedly kicked and beat her nearly to death with a baseball bat.

Less than two weeks after the couple brought the unconscious girl to a hospital last September, the adoptive mother and her grandmother were found shot to death in an apparent murder-suicide.

But when Massachusetts state authorities decided to take Haleigh off life support and let her die, stepfather Jason Strickland - charged with criminal assault for allegedly causing her injuries - sued to keep her alive.

Ruling in America's latest high-profile right-to-die case, the state's supreme court decided Tuesday that Haleigh can be put out of her misery and that giving Strickland a veto is "unthinkable".

One of the judges, John Greaney, said "a young girl who has suffered tremendously from acts of violence and cruelty ... now will be permitted to pass away with dignity".

The case has echoes of the family and political battle over Terri Schiavo. The US woman was on life support for 15 years until a state court ordered her feeding tube removed last spring at her husband's behest - and over her parents' protest.

Haleigh's biological mother claims Strickland went to court not out of concern for the child but to avoid a possible murder charge if she dies.

"I think it was more of a way to stall the inevitable... to protect himself from possibly being charged with murder," Allison Avrett said on WCVB television in Boston.

Haleigh's suffering is a sadly familiar tale of a child caught between troubled adults and busy social workers.

Strickland and his wife Holly - Haleigh's aunt and adoptive mother - brought her to a Westfield, Massachusetts, hospital on Sep 11 with a broken nose, multiple bruises all over her body and multiple old fractures, court records show.

Doctors subsequently determined she had suffered severe brain injuries and was in an irreversible vegetative state.

The court listed more than 20 complaints of abuse and neglect of Haleigh since September 2002, but social workers left her in Holly Strickland's care.

"This is just a sad girl who fell through the system," said Denise Monteiro, spokeswoman for the state's Department of Social Services, in a telephone interview. "She was let down by a lot of people, including us."

The agency is investigating its handling of the case, Monteiro said.

Haleigh wound up with her aunt at age four when her biological mother lost custody amid allegations that her boyfriend had sexually abused the child. Her aunt adopted Haleigh in October 2001, a month after marrying Strickland, an auto mechanic.

It's unclear when Haleigh will be taken off her feeding tube and respirator, but Avrett said she wants her daughter's suffering to end.

"I'm sorry," she said on WCVB Tuesday, choking back tears. "I'm so sorry."

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