Task force created in wake of Poutre tragedy seeks to improve lawyers’ response to child, domestic abuse

Issue July/August 2006 By Bill Archambeault

In the wake of the highly publicized Haleigh Poutre case, the Massachusetts Bar Association has organized a new task force to explore ways the legal community can help identify and protect children and victims of domestic abuse.

The 12-person task force, which includes attorneys, two judges and several child care professionals, is currently working under the name Sharlene’s Task Force. ("Sharlene was the pseudonym for Poutre before the then 11-year-old girl was publicly identified.) The task force’s name could change, however, to reflect the group’s broader focus on child and domestic abuse rather than focusing solely on Poutre’s case.

The task force is chaired by Jacquelynne Bowman, deputy director of Greater Boston Legal Services Inc. and chair of the MBA’s Access to Justice Section Council.

"It is critical that we are all aware of and working towards the goal of protecting children, Bowman said. "I hope that the task force can review the big picture, not just what happened or did not happen at the time that the request was made to remove life support. In order to do this, we must have people from various sectors of the current state intervention spectrum, DSS, attorneys, judges, social workers, child advocates, parent advocates, etc.

"I hope that the task force is able to work towards bringing the different disciplines currently involved in child welfare matters to the table, where we can talk across disciplines about how best to meet the needs of children in abuse and neglect matters, she said.

Also serving on the task force are Chief Justice Martha P. Grace and the Hon. Carol A. Erskine of the Juvenile Court Department, Jay McManus, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, Marylou Sudders, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and Department of Social Services General Counsel Virginia Peel and Deputy Commissioner Isa Woldegiuris.

MBA President Warren Fitzgerald said he has high hopes the task force will educate lawyers about what they should do in situations like Poutre’s, including how to recognize signs of abuse and who to contact about it.

"This task force will hopefully guide us to whatever efforts will make us best able to reduce child and domestic abuse, he said. "I hope it does get into those areas because lawyers are often in positions to detect situations of abuse. I know this task force will do that.

Fitzgerald said he did not envision the task force’s role as simply adding to the criticism that’s already been directed at various state agencies and officials.

"I see this as the bar asking trained and qualified individuals — who deal day-to-day with this horrible problem — how we can help, he said. "We should know what to do to help out when we do discover it.

There has been intense criticism of the state’s handling of the case, in which the Westfield girl was beaten and hospitalized in a coma on Sept. 11, 2005. A Department of Social Services lawyer failed to tell the Supreme Judicial Court that Poutre was starting to breathe on her own when the court agreed with DSS’ recommendation to remove the girl’s life support. She was later transferred to a rehabilitation center, where she started showing signs of improvement.

Gov. Mitt Romney appointed a special panel on Feb. 3 to review the Poutre case. On March 21, the panel reported finding a systemic failure in the state’s child welfare, health care and mental health systems — both public and private — when it came to protecting children’s welfare. It criticized DSS, the Department of Mental Health and the private sector health care community, recommending:
• Creating a new DSS process if a physician requests the withholding or withdrawal of life support;
• Making critical medical, psychiatric and child abuse expertise to DSS;
• Making it a priority that DSS obtain a comprehensive profile of the child;
• Increasing access to quality mental health services in private and public sectors;
• Embracing strategies for improving error management.

Bowman cautioned, however, that there might not be an easy answer for preventing a similar situation from happening.

"We are only human, we all can make a mistake, most of us do not have the power to predict the future, she said. "I just wonder if there are in fact things we can do, working together across disciplines, to support the system so that it works effectively for parents, children and families as a whole. DSS lawyers are often involved early in the child welfare process but other lawyers are not involved until the case enters the court system. At that point, we are often restricted by our roles as advocates for the parties we are representing, which sometimes makes it more difficult to advocate for what is purely in the child’s best interests.

Still, Bowman is hopeful the task force can come up with solutions for addressing the problem.

"I see this task force as a working group of committed individuals who are volunteering their time, knowledge and expertise to explore the ways in which the legal community can support efforts to protect children, she said.