In my previous post on this subject, I wrote of the guilty verdicts returned by a jury last week in Springfield, Massachusetts, against Jason Strickland, the stepfather of Haleigh Poutre. The evidence against Strickland was compelling, he’s been found guilty, and hopefully his sentencing on December 11 will be extremely severe, as it should be. I say this as a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney who believes every person has the constitutional right to a zealous defense of any charges against him or her. But now that guilt has been established, someone like this deserves as severe a sentence as can be handed down. It isn’t at all inconsistent for a defense attorney to believe in punishment after guilt had been established beyond a reasonable doubt, and Mr. Strickland’s appellate rights will remain unchanged under the Massachusetts sentencing parameters for this crime.
But there are other guilty parties in this sad story, and at the center of them is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, through its child protection agency, the Department of Social Services (DSS.) The negligence exhibited by DSS caseworkers in this case is appalling. On numerous occasions over five years’ time, several people reported their suspicions to health workers and DSS officials that this young child was being badly abused by her step parents. Reporting parties included doctors and nurses at hospitals and medical offices that Haleigh was treated at on various occasions over those five years, as well as teachers, and even neighbors. According to sources, after each of these reports, DSS workers made inquiry to Haleigh’s stepmother Holli Strickland, and her stepfather Jason Strickland. Both Stricklands told DSS workers that Haleigh was responsible for casing her own injuries – and shockingly, DSS believed it. Repeatedly. Over five years. These injuries included cigarette burns, whip marks, ligature (rope) marks, welts and bruises from being beaten by something resembling an electric cord, cuts, lacerations, bruises, concussions and sprains. Yes, you read correctly: In the face of injuries and evidence like this, DSS officials bought repeated stories offered up by these twisted step parents that this young girl had “A habit of hurting herself.”
Incompetence and negligence on this level strains credulity. But it happened. Now, what to do about it? Plainly put, heads should roll here: There should be a top-to-bottom review of who was in charge at DSS when this incompetence was allowed to take place, and all responsible people involved in this inexcusable tale should lose their jobs, immediately. Further, DSS leaders and its caseworkers should not only be sued civilly for gross negligence, they should be held criminally responsible for what occurred here. Legally accomplishing this would be a tough task – something known as “reckless disregard” would likely need to be shown on the part of DSS executive leadership and its caseworkers, as opposed to ordinary negligence. There is also the problem of something known as the “sovereign immunity” of DSS leaders and workers acting in their official capacity. Notwithstanding, I believe a state prosecution should be undertaken here. It is not enough for DSS to “have the best of intentions.” It is not enough that it “means well.”
True, DSS workers handle many cases at once, and each is doubtless difficult. But that is no excuse for the type of gross incompetence and recklessness that occurred here. A strong message needs to be sent to this agency and the officials within it, from the commissioner of DSS, on down: This type of incompetence won’t be tolerated again: Drop the ball again on a scale like that which occurred in the Poutre case, and you’ll face criminal charges. Legislative action may be needed to create statutory language that would expose such personnel to criminal penalties, and politically as well as practically, the objections to such a statutory mechanism would be numerous. Obviously, any such language would need to be carefully crafted so as not to expose every DSS caseworker or supervisor to criminal charges should a mistake be made, as mistakes are unavoidable. Granted, that may be difficult to do. But if there are not stiff penalties to face for this type of negligence, what is to prevent it from happening again?