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Court records in abused girl's life-support case stay secret

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MASSACHUSETTS   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Jan. 19, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MASSACHUSETTS   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Jan. 19, 2006

Court records in abused girl’s life-support case stay secret

  • The public has no right to attend court proceedings or see documents in the life-support case of an 11- year-old girl, the state high court ruled.

Jan. 19, 2006  ·   Court proceedings and records in the case of a severely abused 11-year-old girl — who the court ruled could be removed from life support — will remain closed, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled Tuesday.

The high court, which upheld a lower court order keeping the case secret, cited a state law directing that juvenile care and protection proceedings be closed to the public. Although Massachusetts courts have found a common-law right of access to judicial records and a First Amendment right of access to records in criminal cases, none of those cases involved juvenile court records, Justice John Greaney wrote for the four justices who joined the majority.

“The result is unbelievable,” said Edward McDonough, one of the attorneys seeking access to the case. “It’s all been done behind closed doors — the government approving the actions of the government when the life of a child is at stake. This is a shocking degree of government secrecy.”

Two justices concurred with Greaney, but wrote a separate opinion questioning whether a child’s life support hearing should be closed simply because it takes place in the context of a care and protection proceeding. Life support cases raise different public issues than care and protection proceedings, they noted.

The public’s ability to scrutinize governmental affairs “is especially apt in cases that will result, irreversibly, in a loss of life,” Justice Francis Spina wrote in the concurrence. Although the state has a legitimate interest in protecting children from “the stigma that may be associated with having parents who are accused of being unfit,” the decision to withdraw life support “focuses not only on the child’s health and the best interests of the child, but on whether under the substituted judgment standard the child would, if competent, choose to forgo the use of extraordinary means to sustain life.”

Unlike a care and protection case — which is closed to the public, a life support case should be open because it “involves no accusation of parental unfitness, remediation of parental unfitness, or stigma associated with parental unfitness that the child will carry with her through life,” Spina wrote. “The public is entitled to know that those seeking the orders are not trying to conceal foul play or that the expense of maintaining life is not driving the request.”

The concurring justices noted that the issue should be revisited by the legislature since it probably did not anticipate this issue when it passed the law closing care and protection proceedings in 1954.

This case arose when Haleigh Poutre’s adoptive mother and stepfather were charged with assault and battery after she was hospitalized with serious brain injuries and placed on life support in September. Two weeks later, the adoptive mother was found dead and the Department of Social Services requested the court’s permission to disconnect the girl’s ventilator and feeding tube. The stepfather, Jason Strickland, asked to be considered the girl’s adoptive parent so he could seek to keep her on life support. He also asked the court to open the proceedings and records in Haleigh’s life support case. The court denied his requests, and Strickland appealed.

The high court rejected Strickland’s argument that he should be considered the girl’s de facto parent, explaining that the concept of a “de facto parent” is based on the idea that a child would be harmed if a relationship between the child and an adult was severed.

This “presumes that the bond between a child and a de facto parent will be, above all, loving and nurturing,” Greaney wrote for the majority. Strickland, however, offered no evidence that his participation in Haleigh’s “life was of a loving or nurturing nature, or even that it was beneficial to the child,” particularly since he is accused of inflicting her life-threatening injuries. “To recognize the petitioner as a de facto parent, in order that he may participate in a medical end-of-life decision for the child, is unthinkable in the circumstances of this case and would amount to an illogical and unprincipled perversion of the doctrine,” Greaney wrote.

(Care and Protection of Sharlene (pseudonym for Haleigh Poutre); Petitioner’s attorney: John J. Egan, Egan, Flanagan and Cohen, P.C., Springfield, Mass.)SB

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