- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) - More than 10 years after Haleigh Poutre was beaten into a coma, the Department of Children and Families is still making the same mistakes that led to her near death, including not following a law created in light of the case to have a clinical review team review cases after multiple allegations of abuse.

When Haleigh was brought to a Westfield hospital in September 2005, her teeth were broken, her face was swollen and old and new burns were on her chest. But the most severe injury was to her brain stem, which doctors said was partially sheared, leaving her “brain dead” and in a vegetative state.

DCF, at the time called the Department of Social Services, was harshly criticized over its handling of the case, which included the subsequent arrest of her aunt and stepfather, Holli and Jason Strickland, on assault charges.

In 2006, a legislative oversight committee determined that DSS was at fault for failing to protect Haleigh. DSS received at least 12 reports of abuse or neglect of Haleigh between 2001 and 2005, and had been involved with the Strickland family since 1998. DSS officials later acknowledged that they missed signs of abuse before Haleigh was brought to the hospital.

DCF sought an order to remove Haleigh’s life support eight days after she was admitted, and it was ultimately upheld by the state Supreme Judicial Court. But on Jan. 18, 2006 - the day doctors were scheduled to remove her life support - Haleigh regained consciousness and began breathing on her own and responding to commands.

Many people remember the Haleigh Poutre case as it relates to end-of-life decisions for children in the state’s custody.

But the child abuse she endured inspired many changes in the way the state handles abuse reporting, including a special review requirement of cases where three or more reports of abuse and neglect are made, increased penalties for failing to report child abuse and the creation of a registry for keeping track of foster parents. Also, then-Gov. Deval L. Patrick created a child advocate position that reports directly to the governor regarding severe child abuse or neglect in the state.

The adoptive parents of Haleigh Poutre - now Haleigh Arnett, a 21-year-old woman who loves music and Disney, but cannot walk or use the bathroom on her own - say the same state system that failed Haleigh is continuing to fail other children.

Her adoptive father, Keith A. Arnett, 45, and adoptive mother, Rebekah E. Arnett, 42, said the state is still making the same mistakes with other people’s children that it made with Haleigh. The state, they said, is not learning from its mistakes.

“Policies and procedures fall by the wayside and kids are not being taken care of,” Mr. Arnett said in a phone interview. “It is maddening. If society can’t take care of its children, what does that say? Haleigh is paying the price like no other for a system failure. It is sad that this was allowed to happen, and it probably could have been prevented. It is pretty intense for me. We’ve gone through a lot to adopt Haleigh - so many studies, checking backgrounds. We’re squeaky clean, but it was invasive and totally over the top. Then, with a kid like Jeremiah Oliver, they missed eight visits and didn’t review the case and the kid ends up dead, and the Hardwick boy is in a coma. That is inexcusable.”

Mr. Arnett is referring to Jeremiah Oliver, the 5-year old boy from Fitchburg whose body was found in a suitcase in Sterling a year after he disappeared; and Jack Loiselle of Hardwick, who remains unresponsive in a long-term rehabilitation center after allegedly being starved and beaten by his father, Randall Lints of Hardwick.

Haleigh’s, Jeremiah’s, and Jack’s cases are similar in that multiple reports of abuse and neglect were made, but not investigated by DCF. Moreover, in Haleigh’s and Jack’s cases, social workers believed their caretakers’ explanations of how Haleigh and Jack sustained multiple injuries - through self-harming, they told them. In Haleigh’s case, Mr. Arnett said when social workers would ask her how she got hurt, her adoptive aunt was always an intimidating figure in the room.

Haleigh, Mr. Arnett said, is a blessing to his family, and adopting her was a dream come true. He quit his job as a special education teacher and started a small trucking business to help with Haleigh’s round-the-clock care when he and his wife adopted her into their Western Massachusetts home.

Ms. Arnett home-schools their three biological sons and also cares for two foster children. The Arnetts have been taking in foster children for almost 10 years and knows how the child welfare system operates, Mr. Arnett said. Haleigh’s social workers have been amazing, he said, but he also points to a lack of support for social workers who are often overwhelmed as part of the problem and disconnect between management and what is happening on the front lines in children’s homes.

“Haleigh is in a good place and we love her to death,” he said. “I’m encouraged by her and strengthened by her. It is a great joy taking care of Haleigh. She is just awesome. She is perfect. But, I don’t wish any other adoptive or foster parent to go through this or worse - the kid is dead.”

Another issue, Mr. Arnett said, is that DCF continues to keep the same social workers and managers on the very cases they made mistakes in as they did in Haleigh’s case.

“No one wants to take responsibility for kids dead or dying, and that is the way it has been,” he said. “The fact continues that reviews are not done and now a kid is in a coma. They knew certain things about the dad in Hardwick and they didn’t do anything. That is insane when you think about it. DCF is a machine. As foster parents it is so hard to get any answers out of anybody. The system is so big it doesn’t look at kids as individuals - just policies and procedures - and that is where the system really got it wrong. They are so far removed from what the realities are.”

When Mr. Patrick overhauled the state’s child welfare system in 2008, cases like those were supposed to undergo a special review by a state board, if the department receives three or more reports of suspected child abuse. The results of that review were intended to be evaluated by prosecutors and police.

At the time, Mr. Patrick said the new law was “a giant step forward,” and that “nobody wants tragedies to repeat themselves.”

Yet, DCF’s failure to follow that law since, has in some cases, led to child deaths or severe injuries more than 10 years after the Poutre case that initially inspired the change.

In a statement, DCF officials said, “Despite the best of intentions, the Department does not have an up-to-date intake policy and is working diligently to develop a new one that will be executed statewide. The children of the Commonwealth deserve nothing less.”

DCF officials said that Worcester-area offices recently implemented regular meetings where managers and supervisors provide oversight on the 51A process, screening process and decisions regarding ongoing cases, and have implemented a protocol where a clinical review team will review complex and difficult cases. DCF is considering “rolling this out statewide,” they said.

“The Department does not have readily available data that would capture compliance with the 2008 legislation,” DCF officials said in a statement.

During a recent press conference on the Loiselle case, Gov. Charles D. Baker Jr. said the special review requirement was an “unclear policy” within DCF.

Elizabeth Guyton, a spokeswoman for Mr. Baker, said, “Keeping the children of the Commonwealth safe is our highest priority. Our social workers are dedicated but they need clear and updated policies and strong management behind them to do this important job. The reforms that we began putting in place with the CWLA report and continue to enhance as new information becomes available will make a great impact.”

However, retired Judge Martha Grace, who oversaw child abuse cases for more than 20 years, said she believes part of the problem is that DCF does not follow through with policies already put in place to protect children.

“They need follow-through,” she said. “But, if you want a second set of eyes, where does it come from? If you can’t answer that question, there is no hope new directives will be implemented today, tomorrow or in the future. The lack of follow-through always bothered me. It is not a question of putting more directives in place when the old ones are not being implemented everywhere. We need to take what we have for laws and not accept the easy answer of ‘not enough manpower’ for why they are not implemented; but, ask how you can implement them with what you have.”

___

Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com

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