Again, The Republican fights to see justice for Haleigh.
The state's Department of Children and Families has asked a judge in Hampden Superior Court to bar the press from hearing the testimony of a teenage girl in a criminal case of child abuse. We, the press, are the public's eyes and ears, and we are opposing that request.
Haleigh Poutre, now 14, was living in Westfield when she was injured. After she was hospitalized in September 2005, her stepfather, Jason D. Strickland, and his wife, Holli A. Strickland, were accused of abusing her. The girl had suffered brain injuries, and now she is being treated at Franciscan Children's Hospital in Boston.
Holli A. Strickland, who was Haleigh Poutre's adoptive mother, died a few days after her arrest in what West Springfield police said was a murder-suicide at the hands of her grandmother. The Poutre case became a searing one for the people who operate the state's child welfare system, and Gov. Deval L. Patrick signed a law earlier this year that enacted new rules aimed at preventing abuse of children who have already received some contact with state social workers.
Poutre had been seen by social workers for the Department of Children and Families numerous times before she wound up in Westfield's Noble Hospital three years ago, but they failed to protect the girl and prevent the injuries she suffered. Apparently Haleigh Poutre had told social workers she was being abused, but they did nothing to protect her.
The case has been reported on extensively for three years. Now the agency claims that it has "evaluated the effect of press coverage on the privacy and future of the minor child" and decided that coverage would "significantly impact the child's privacy as well as impact the ability to find a long-term permanent placement resource for the child."
I'll leave it to the lawyers for this newspaper to argue before the court for openness in this matter, but it is stunningly disingenuous for a state agency that failed in its role of protecting a child to now argue that if the press is present in the courtroom to hear testimony about how the agency did or did not perform its duties this would violate the child's privacy.
Our executive editor, Wayne E. Phaneuf, had this to say in our story about the attempt to exclude the press.
"This case is of national significance and has already led to changes in the law to protect children who were victimized by the failure of the state agencies to act promptly and properly on their behalf. At every step of the way those state agencies have tried to suppress the public knowledge of this case because of their embarrassment."
Not everyone will agree with us in our efforts to be present during the hearing.
Justin Gorman, of West Springfield, wrote a letter to the editor saying he was alarmed by our challenge.
"This further substantiates the media's tendency to gravitate towards the most controversial information, no matter what the cost," Gorman wrote. "On one side, we have a 14-year-old girl. ... On the other side, we have the largest newspaper in Western Massachusetts trying to get to the front of the line to exploit the testimony of a minor."
Gorman went on to say that the newspaper is irresponsible by putting its readership over the fundamental privacy of a minor "who will have to relive a traumatizing story in the hopes that justice can be served against the alleged abuser."
He concluded with this: "For once, try to set a precedent and put grace over glory."
Gorman's comments indicate a sizable lack of knowledge about this newspaper's body of work and its history. To suggest that the newspaper is somehow seeking "glory" is, at best, ridiculous. There is no glory for anyone in the case of a young girl who was abused the way Haleigh Poutre was, nor should there be any place for a state agency responsible for protecting her to hide and not be accountable.
Openness in our trial courts and our state and local government is essential to sustaining our democracy and providing accountability. It is not surprising that a state agency or a prosecutor would seek to bar the press from a hearing. Some of them prefer that the public never know what they do, how they do it and why.
Matters of privacy matter to us, but so does our role of government watchdog and public advocate. We consider such matters carefully, as we did in this case.
Since 14-year-old Haleigh Poutre emerged from a coma three years ago, just before her life support was nearly removed, she has reached more medical milestones than doctors ever imagined possible: She can breathe on her own, communicate sentences, and concentrate long enough to attend a special day school.
And this week, a Springfield judge is set to determine whether this brain-injured child has attained yet another level of recovery, the mental competence to testify against her stepfather who, prosecutors say, contributed to her violent head injuries. Prosecutors want to call Haleigh as a witness, setting the stage for what would be one of the most dramatic victim-defendant confrontations in state history.
"The judge will want to see that she knows the difference between truth and deception," said Michael O. Jennings, a veteran criminal defense attorney in Springfield who is not involved in the case. "And he will also concentrate on her ability to observe, remember," and express herself...............
Worth repeating: “Openess in our trial courts and our state and local government is essential in sustaining our democracy and providing accountability.”