WESTFIELD, Mass. — Photos hanging on Allison Avrett’s living room wall show her daughter Haleigh as a smiling little girl with brown bangs hanging over her squinting eyes.
Most of the pictures were taken before Avrett gave Haleigh up for adoption five years ago — and long before the alleged beating that landed the 11-year-old in a hospital attached to the ventilator and feeding tube that keep her alive.
Now, with Haleigh’s doctors saying she will never recover from her vegetative state, the child is at the center of a right-to-die legal struggle.
The state Department of Social Services, which has had custody of Haleigh since she was hospitalized Sept. 11, wants to remove her from life support.
Her stepfather, Jason Strickland, who is charged in her beating and could be tried for murder if she dies, wants to keep her alive. Strickland is free on bail while awaiting trial.
A juvenile court judge has ruled that Haleigh should be allowed to die. Strickland has appealed, and the state’s highest court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case Tuesday.
Avrett, who gave up her parental rights when she let her sister Holli adopt Haleigh in 2000, says her daughter should not suffer anymore.
“They say the most she might ever do is open her eyes,” said Avrett, a 29-year-old stay-at-home mom with two other children. “I don’t want her to sit there longer than she needs to.”
Police say the injuries that left Haleigh with severe brain stem injuries came at the hands of Strickland and his wife Holli — Allison Avrett’s sister.
2 other deaths investigated
Within two weeks of the couple pleading innocent to the beating, Holli Strickland was dead, fatally shot in her grandmother’s West Springfield apartment. The body of her 71-year-old grandmother, Constance Young, was beside her. The possible double suicide or murder-suicide is still under investigation.
In a legal brief filed before Tuesday’s hearing, Strickland, 31, asks to be declared Haleigh’s de facto parent. His lawyer, John Egan, insists his client is not motivated by the chance he could be charged with murder if the girl dies.
“We should be coming down on the side of life as opposed to death,” he said.
In 1998, Avrett moved with Haleigh to Virginia to live with her boyfriend. A few months later, Avrett sent Haleigh back to Massachusetts to spend the summer with Holli and her former husband, Jonathan Poutre.
Within a few weeks of her daughter’s return to Massachusetts, the Department of Social Services took custody of Haleigh and began investigating allegations she was abused by Avrett’s boyfriend in Virginia. A DSS spokeswoman refused to comment because of privacy issues.
‘Couldn't handle the stress’
Avrett said her boyfriend was ultimately cleared. But by then, the Department of Social Services had placed Haleigh in permanent foster care with Holli and Jonathan Poutre. By her own admission, Avrett was not doing everything she could to regain custody.
“I stopped all contact for a while with DSS, my sister and Haleigh,” Avrett said. “I couldn’t handle the stress, so I took myself out of the situation. I needed a break from it.”
Avrett broke up with her boyfriend and married another man in 1999. A year later — after what Avrett said had been several years of strong recommendation by the social services department — she agreed to let her older sister formally adopt Haleigh.
Holli had a degree in child care and had been Avrett’s role model growing up. The arrangement was OK for Avrett, who was content to have frequent visits with Haleigh and still felt involved in her life.
“We were always a close family,” Avrett said.
But Avrett said things started to change after her sister divorced Jonathan Poutre and married Jason Strickland.
“When Jason came into the picture, we started seeing less of Haleigh,” she said.
According to court documents filed by Strickland’s lawyer, Haleigh had been hospitalized during the past three years for self-inflicted injuries. The girl’s alleged tendency to hurt herself is a cornerstone of Strickland’s defense.
But Alicia Weiss, a baby sitter for Haleigh, testified at a hearing in Strickland’s criminal case that she saw Holli Strickland kick the girl down the stairs repeatedly and hit her with a baseball bat. She said she also saw Jason Strickland hit the girl twice with an open hand and once with a plastic stick.
Although he has not been accused of dealing any particular blows to the child, court documents accuse Strickland of watching as his wife abused Haleigh.
Avrett’s hope is that the Supreme Judicial Court will uphold the decision to let Haleigh die and that the state will allow her to plan her daughter’s funeral.
“I’ve had guilt for years over giving her up for adoption,” Avrett said.
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