Every day, criminals get through cracks in the system, flouting the law and abusing the innocent. Law enforcement agencies and child protection services are there to make sure that those who are at their weakest can be safe from those who wish to do them harm. Yet, the system as it is now is far from perfect.
No one knows this better than little Haleigh Poutre, whose cries for help went unheard for most of her young life. Her abuse continued until the day that her abusers went too far and landed the poor eight-year-old in a coma. Years later, a lucky break and a miraculous turn of events would finally see the guilty party punished…
Haleigh Poutre’s life had been difficult from the get-go. By the time she was just four, her biological mother had proven herself incapable of caring for the little girl. There was hope, though, in the form of Haleigh’s aunt, Holli. And so, just as the four-year-old was learning her ABCs, she was placed in the care of her mother’s sister.
Living with Holli
Haleigh lived with her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend, Jason Strickland, for some time before Jason and Holli got married. The Stricklands had three other children but soon came to love Haleigh like she was one of their own. After several years, they officially adopted her and made her a part of their family…
Dozens of Calls
The adoption came as a surprise to social services, who had received a number of calls over the years regarding Haleigh’s well-being in the Strickland household. Between 2001 and 2002, they received dozens of calls referencing how much danger little Haleigh was in.
Bruised and Abused
Eight-year-old Haleigh Poutre often arrived at school covered in bruises and looking strangely unkempt next to her cousins. Each time social services investigated the allegations of abuse, however, Holli said that Haleigh was clumsy and had just bruised herself and the excuse worked, for a time…
On September 11, 2005, 11-year-old Haleigh was brought to the hospital. Her adoptive parents explained that she had lost consciousness suddenly, but when the doctors examined her, they found that her brain was severely damaged. It was as if she’d been involved in a high-speed crash.
Unfortunately, the damage from her injury was too extensive to be helped. Haleigh fell into a coma and the doctors were fairly certain that she would never wake up again. She was in a permanent vegetative state, unable to tell anyone what really happened to her. Though, the police did have some idea…
Nine days later, Jason and Holli Strickland were arrested for assault. The attacks on their niece had finally gone too far. After being bailed out of jail, however, Holli went to her grandmother’s house to seek some consolement. Once there, the two formed an impromptu suicide pact: her grandmother shot Holli, then killed herself.
Only One Left
Now Jason was the only person left to face the assault charges. Meanwhile, Haleigh’s condition was worsening. It was looking more and more likely that she would remain in that coma-like state for the rest of her life and the State was looking to remove her from life support.: this was something Jason Strickland simply couldn’t allow…
Strickland was Haleigh’s stepfather and as such he had the option of making a motion to become the girl’s “defacto parent.” This would mean that he could then choose to keep her on life support as long as he could. It was important because as long as Haleigh was alive, he could only be tried for assault. If she died, he’d be charged with murder.
Sadly, the state won. Despite the “altruistic” efforts of her stepfather, Haleigh was to be taken off of life support on January 18, 2008. It would only be a matter of minutes before her poor lungs stopped working entirely. Miraculously though, Haleigh started to breathe on her own and soon after her eyes opened for the first time in months….
Before long, Haleigh was smiling, waving, pointing to objects, even saying a few words. She was still confined to a wheelchair of course and could communicate best through a letter board on a tray, but she was awake and entirely aware. More importantly, she knew what had been done to her and was ready to testify.
Able to Testify
It took two years for the case against Strickland to go to trial, more than enough time for the now 13-year-old Haleigh to regain her strength and courage. She came to the courthouse and was wheeled up to the stand. In her own words, Haleigh described the years of abuse and neglect by the Stricklands. Though, Jason’s defense was perhaps just as shocking as her testimony…
Jason Strickland admitted to noticing Haleigh’s injuries but claimed that he believed Holli’s story that the girl’s wounds were self-inflicted. In his defense, this was the same story told to investigators from the Department of Social Services. At the time, they believed the story, and it was why she wasn’t taken from the home.
Guilt By Association
When it came time to deliberate, jurors questioned whether Jason Strickland had to be present at the time of the assault to return a guilty verdict. They believed that just knowing what Holli was doing to the girl, even if he didn’t participate, was enough to render a guilty verdict. Any “ordinary person” would realize that leaving Haleigh in the care of Holli presented a serious risk to the girl. The verdict was unanimous…
A Just Verdict
The Jurors concluded that even if he weren’t there when Haleigh received her near fatal injuries, he knew the abuse was an ongoing concern. He was convicted for other charges of assault and battery for striking Haleigh himself on previous occasions as well as failing to stop the primary abuser. He was sentenced to 12–15 years in prison.
In the fall of 2008, Keith and Becky Arnett got a phone call at their home in Southwick, Massachusetts. The call was from a state social worker, asking if they would consider taking in a foster child with disabilities. Her name was Haleigh Poutre, and the Arnetts didn’t even hesitate for a moment before telling the woman yes…
Adopted at Last
They had completed foster care training years before the call and had already cared for a number of children. For two years the Arnett’s fostered Haleigh, caring for her needs and helping her to learn to care for herself a little better. Then, in September of 2010, 16-year-old Haleigh was adopted by her foster parents.
Disabled but Happy
Afterward, Haleigh attended a special education program in the Southwick public school system. Though she remains substantially disabled and relies on a wheelchair, to get around, she is able to feed herself and can communicate using a letter board. Today, the memories of the attack have faded and she barely remembers anything of what happened that fateful day…
Story of Abuse
Her singular story of abuse is made worse by the failure of the child-protection system to help her before it was too late. Her tale is a sad one, full of government lapses and recognized nationally as a dark chapter in the lives of everyone involved, including the child protection agency and officials who failed to save her in the first place.
Haleigh loves music and sways along with it, she likes to spend time with her parents and adoptive siblings and do makeovers. She loves crowds and is not afraid to take any chance she can to be as normal as possible. Now 23-years-old, Haleigh lives her life to the fullest, having completely let go of the trauma of her childhood.