WESTFIELD — The minister winds up his welcome to some 400 people, and soon lyrics flash karaoke-like on a large screen. A spirited Christian pop song, “Blessed be Your Name,” fills the Westfield Evangelical Free Church.
In the back row, a young woman, sitting in a wheelchair next to her adoptive parents, lights up.
Though she can’t read all the words, she sways to the music and claps her hands, the nails painted pink with white polka dots. She loves cheerful tunes and a crowd, and on this Sunday, she has both.
Keith and Becky Arnett could have predicted that Haleigh, 20, would brighten at this part of the service.
She entered their lives as a 14-year-old foster child, then known as Haleigh Poutre, who had been at the center of a passionate end-of-life court battle. Her singular story of abuse, compounded by government lapses, drew national media attention. It remains one of the darkest chapters in the state’s child-protection system.
As her case receded from the headlines, the Arnetts, in the quiet of their home in Western Massachusetts, took her in, and slowly learned what abilities Haleigh had — and had not — lost.
One thing soon became clear: Her love of music remained as strong as ever, as was her yearning to be part of a family and a community.
On a fall day in 2008, the kitchen phone rang inside the Arnetts’ ranch home in Southwick. It was a state social worker, asking if they would consider taking in a “foster child with disabilities.”
The couple didn’t hesitate. They had completed foster-care training two years before, already had cared for a handful of children, and refused to turn away anyone in need.
As devout Christians, they believed God’s work requires sacrifices, including from busy families like theirs raising three boys.
But the social worker didn’t want a quick answer over the phone, insisting instead on a face-to-face visit. A week later, when she and two supervisors showed up at the Arnetts’ house, carrying files and a videotape, they wasted little time before asking, “Have you heard of Haleigh Poutre?”
The couple remembered the child’s photo splashed across the news over the years. She was the adorable girl from the neighboring town who fell into a coma in 2005 and became the center of the national drama over the removal of her life support.
Few throughout the state didn’t follow the riveting events that unfolded as Haleigh lay unconscious with brain trauma so severe she was deemed to be in an “irreversible vegetative state:” There was the arrest of the girl’s adoptive mother and stepfather on assault charges, the bizarre murder-suicide that took the life of the adoptive mother and Haleigh’s grandmother, and the stepfather’s legal effort to halt the removal of Haleigh’s ventilator and feeding tube. If the girl died, his assault charges could be upgraded to murder.
A day after the state’s highest court authorized the withdrawal of life support so she could “die with dignity,” Haleigh’s eyes opened. She began tracking people’s movements with her eyes, and pointing to toys on command.
She defied everyone’s expectations, and while she was never going to return to being the cheerful brown-haired girl who rode bicycles and twirled in dance recitals, she was not, as doctors had predicted, doomed to a life of virtually no awareness.
In the months to come, after the revelation that the state had received numerous complaints alleging abuse of Haleigh since she was 8, she became the face of a sweeping overhaul of the child-welfare system. Not until the recent death of Jeremiah Oliver has the State House seen such fervor for changing laws intended to protect children.
As blue-ribbon panels were formed, the girl behind it all needed a new family.
On this autumn day in 2008, sitting around the Arnett’s kitchen table, state child-protection agency staffers warned the couple to think soberly about this foster care assignment.
They said Haleigh wore diapers, used a wheelchair to get around, and often slurred words. She attended a special school at the Franciscan Hospital for Children in Brighton, and progress was expected to be slow and uneven. They played a videotape of Haleigh moving to music, and typing words on a letter board.
The social workers said the family would be required to undergo another in-depth vetting process to be Haleigh’s foster parents. The state could not tolerate failing this girl again.
“Don’t make any quick decisions,” one of them said.
Keith and Becky, then in their late 30s, looked at each other. They knew they shared the same values, having fallen in love as teenagers at a Christian summer camp.
“Okay, we’ll think about it,” Keith replied.
Haleigh moves in
One afternoon months later, Haleigh sat in the Arnetts’ living room, enjoying her favorite after-school ritual: Feeding herself a snack from her wheelchair tray and relaxing in front of the Disney Channel.
“Hey man!” Keith greeted her as he walked by.
“I’m not a man,” Haleigh declared, with a hint of offense.
Her response left the family chuckling quietly, something they did often early on in Haleigh’s stay as they learned how her mind now worked. On her best days, she could read at a seventh-grade level, but she understood words very literally. Keith, a former special education teacher who now runs a small trucking business, said he stopped saying “What’s up?” because the answer inevitably included ceilings or skies.
The couple had ambitious hopes for Haleigh, that with their love and dedication, she would learn to walk independently again and carry on lengthy conversations. Early on, she relied mostly on her letter board to communicate, such as wanting a “cookie” or a “banana.” Over time, the Arnetts began to understand her without needing words spelled out.
While caring for Haleigh was demanding, she gave back.
“You kiss her on the forehead and she smiles and tells you that she loves you. I have not done a greater thing in my life,” Keith said, seated next to his wife at the kitchen table. “I’m not a great parent. . . . I fail and falter, but I’m willing. Or I should say, we. We are two peas in a pod. We lean on each other all the time.”
The Arnetts, in their first interview since taking Haleigh into their lives, said they agreed to talk with a Globe reporter because they want to draw attention to the importance of foster families.
With his background in special education, Keith said he is deeply aware of the need for good foster homes. Each year in Massachusetts, some 7,000 children, pulled from their troubled families, need a temporary — or permanent — refuge.
But he and his wife said they bristle when people refer to them as saints.
“People often say, ‘How can you do it?’ And I say, ‘How can I not do it?’ ” Keith said. “I am committed to kids having homes.”
As Haleigh celebrated her 15th and 16th birthdays as a foster child, the Arnetts came to know her as a cheerful teenager with a distinctive little-girl personality: Easily bribed with sweets and passionate for the color pink, she craved songs by Justin Bieber and Disney’s Hannah Montana, among other pop idols, and reaching out to people.
Haleigh, who attended a special program at the Southwick public schools, greeted almost everyone with a ready smile and an outstretched hand.
After shaking hands, she often didn’t want to let go. In her playful moments, she would try to transition the handshake grip into a game of thumb-war.
“Haleigh, time to let go,” Becky often gently reminded her.
She quickly bonded with her new family. She began telling Keith and Becky, “I love you.” She learned each boy’s name: Josh, Justin, and Jacob. The youngest, who was 4 when she arrived, spent the most time with her, sometimes playing catch or the board game Candyland.
It was easy for the Arnetts to forget how most people saw Haleigh: A girl with a disfigured shape in her wheelchair, seeming to bend to one side because of a curve in her spine. Her eyes sometimes did not move together, and her speech was often unclear.
Being her foster parents was time-consuming. Traveling with her meant making sure the wheelchair was properly secured in the minivan. She could feed herself, but the Arnetts had to cut up her food, and when she fell ill, they often had to deliver nutrition through a feeding tube. Many weeks, she had multiple appointments with medical specialists.
For a time, doctors recommended that she drink at least five glasses of water a day. Kalli Lacroix, 20, who worked for about a year as an aide for Haleigh and belongs to the same church as the Arnetts, said it was often a struggle to convince Haleigh to drink, and she’d sometimes intentionally dump part of the water when Lacroix wasn’t looking.
“She’d be very sassy with us,” Lacroix said, with a laugh.
Money was often tight. When the Arnetts took Haleigh in, they were treated like all foster parents, receiving a daily stipend of about $25 a day, with additional hourly supplements for extra services.
Keith and Becky admit to feeling overwhelmed some days, and having occasional doubts. They worried sometimes that their three boys, who are being home-schooled by Becky, were getting the short end.
However, the Arnetts say their religion guides them in their choices.
“God loves us, and we want to share his love with others,” Becky said.
The couple said they do not impose their Christianity on their foster children, though expect them to go along with the family’s routines. They do not think Haleigh understands the concept of God and prayer, though she knows religion is about something somber and lofty.
One evening while seated at dinner, they asked for the first time whether Haleigh wanted to lead the family in prayer, something they and the boys typically took turns doing. Haleigh eagerly agreed.
She closed her eyes and bowed her head, and they accepted her lead. She began, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. . . . ”
There was another moment of muffled laughter around the table.
The ‘other mother’
Haleigh rarely asks about the past. Keith said he once drove by her former home in Westfield, and she had no recollection of the place.
Becky said that, during the first year that Haleigh lived with them, she asked about her adoptive mother, Holli, who she understood to be gone from this world and in “heaven.”
As the months and years passed, however, Haleigh has asked far less often about her “other mother.”
Holli Strickland, a family day care operator, gained custody of her niece Haleigh when she was 4. State child-welfare officials accepted as truth what Strickland called to tell them: That Haleigh’s biological mother — Strickland’s half-sister — was a troubled, single teenage mother who routinely neglected her child and that the mother’s boyfriend was sexually molesting the girl.
Strickland depicted herself as a martyr who tried to help Haleigh, who was healthy when she was born, overcome the psychological trauma of her earliest years. Around the time Haleigh was 8, Strickland brought her to the pediatrician’s office with bruises, burns, and cuts. In explaining Haleigh’s injuries, she said Haleigh, due to her mental instability, threw herself down the stairs and stabbed herself with sharp objects.
When questioned, Haleigh went along with Strickland’s explanation to doctors and professed love for her adoptive mother.
Authorities believed Strickland’s stories that Haleigh harmed herself, even as the state received more than a dozen reports of suspected abuse, citing broken bones and numerous other injuries.
But then, on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2005, Holli and her husband, Jason Strickland, brought an unconscious 11-year-old Haleigh body to a local emergency room. Within a few days, doctors concluded that she had a severe brain-stem injury, the kind caused by violent shaking or a high-speed crash.
Still, Holli and her husband insisted that Haleigh had a self-injurious behavioral disorder.
For the first time, doctors challenged this explanation, triggering a sweeping review of Haleigh’s child-protection file and medical records.
Soon state authorities questioned everything Holli ever told them, and police came to the horrific conclusion that the Stricklands had singled out Haleigh for brutal abuse. Soon the couple was arrested on assault charges. Only one of them, however, would ultimately go to trial.
Two days after they were released on bail, Holli Strickland went to her grandmother’s apartment in West Springfield. The next morning, two gunshots went off — the grandmother shot Holli, who was sedated with sleep medication, records show. The 71-year-old woman then shot herself, completing what police say was a murder-suicide pact.
That left the stepfather alone to face criminal charges, which could have been upgraded to murder if Haleigh died.
Eight days after she fell into a coma, the state’s child-protection agency sought a court order to remove her ventilator and feeding tube.
Two doctors from Baystate Medical Center in Springfield had concluded that she was in a vegetative state and probably would never think or feel again, prompting the state to move swiftly, perhaps fearing Haleigh would become another Terri Schiavo.
The Florida woman was in a persistent vegetative state for more than a decade and the center of a lengthy end-of-life battle before she died in 2005 after her feeding tube was removed.
On Oct. 5, 2005, Juvenile Court Judge James Collins approved the removal of Haleigh’s life support “with great sadness.”
The stepfather appealed the ruling, ultimately engaging the services of a prominent Springfield attorney whose clients included the Catholic Diocese of Springfield.
Attorney Jack Egan said his connection to the church, which generally opposes the removal of feeding tubes and other ordinary life-sustaining measures, had nothing to do with his interest in the case. He said he was drawn in after being asked by Strickland’s court-appointed attorney to review Haleigh’s legal file. Egan said he was horrified at the state’s swift action, and agreed to take the case for no fee.
“Here was a child who wasn’t given a chance to live,” he said in a recent interview.
Egan argued the case before the state’s highest court, and on Jan. 17, 2006, learned that he had lost. But in a different way, he prevailed. The appellate process bought just enough time — three extra months — for Haleigh to regain consciousness.
Just a day after the Supreme Judicial Court authorized the removal of Haleigh’s life support, the state announced that she was showing signs of mental alertness. She was looking around her hospital room, clearly attentive.
Instead of pulling her feeding tube, the state transferred her to Franciscan Hospital for Children.
Soon, she was moving her hands to music, writing words on her letter board, and waving at people who passed her in the hallways.
Haleigh becomes an Arnett
The state child-protection agency set out to find a foster family for Haleigh, one that, ideally, could become a permanent home.
After two years living with Haleigh, Becky and Keith Arnett could not imagine family life without her.
The adoption ceremony took place in the Arnett’s dining room, off the kitchen. State officials brought an American flag, which hung from a pole, a Bible, a gavel, and gifts, including a Justin Bieber CD.
The black-robed judge who presided knew Haleigh’s case quite well: It was Collins, the juvenile court judge who initially approved the removal of her life support.
The Arnetts welcomed him, saying Collins was one of many judges and officials in state government who heeded faulty medical opinions about Haleigh, and later proved themselves to be dedicated to her future recovery and care.
“People should be forgiven,” Keith said.
In this spirit, Keith and Becky Arnett said they are looking ahead — not back — in their care of Haleigh, who turned 20 in February.
Her lifelong medical care, rehabilitation, and related expenses will be covered by a $5 million fund drawn from medical malpractice settlements. Haleigh’s state-appointed guardian won these awards after suing her pediatrician, social worker, and other clinicians for missing overt signs of her abuse.
The Arnetts can apply to the fund’s lawyers to pay for items such as an elevator in their home or replacement wheelchairs or beds for Haleigh.
They remain active members of a small group at the Westfield Evangelical Church called Healing Homes, which tries to recruit new foster families for the state.
The group’s membership has stayed static at about 30 members for the past two years, as they struggle to persuade others that the rewards of foster care outweigh the drawbacks, said Tricia Sayre, one of the founders.
The Arnetts said they have learned to adjust their expectations about Haleigh. They had hoped she might try to walk, but she has lost interest in talking steps, even while holding on to others.
Doctors warn that she could regress.
They say they are prepared for any outcome, having fully integrated her into their life as their fourth child and only daughter, Haleigh Arnett.
“It’s a good thing she was able to forget the past,” said Becky. “She won’t hurt any more. In so many ways, she is such a strong kid.”