Monday, January 30, 2006

More on Poutre vs Schiavo

Haleigh Poutre, the brain-damaged child abuse victim in Massachusetts, has been transferred from intensive care to a rehab center after showing significant signs of improvement.

Meanwhile, my column on Haleigh Poutre vs. Terri Schiavo is now up at the Boston Globe.

Here's the full text.

THE CASE of Haleigh Poutre, the battered child at the center of a legal and medical dispute in Massachusetts, is so horrific as to evoke medieval tableaux of hell. This 11-year-old girl was failed by all the adults in her life, from her biological and adoptive families to the social workers and medical professionals. Haleigh, who seems to be emerging from her four-month-long coma and has been moved from intensive care to a rehab center, would have been dead today if the stepfather charged in her near-fatal beating had not fought (most likely for self-interested reasons) to keep her alive.

This tragedy should have been a national outrage. Yet it has gotten only scant attention. Syndicated columnist and blogger Michelle Malkin blames this on a ''post-Schiavo syndrome": After last year's pitched battle over whether Terri Schiavo should be kept alive in a vegetative state, most people shudder at the thought of a repeat. Malkin may well be right -- but if so, the blame rests with the right-to-life advocates who made Schiavo their cause célèbre.

To put it simply: Haleigh Poutre is no Terri Schiavo. Schiavo had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, and had undergone a barrage of tests showing that she had no higher brain functioning and no consciousness -- a fact on which all unbiased medical experts agreed. (Her case had also undergone repeated court review.) Haleigh had been in a vegetative state since Sept. 11. After the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that she could be taken off life support, the girl began to show improvement.

Dr. Nancy Childs, a renowned brain injury specialist in Austin, Texas, told The Boston Globe that 16 percent of brain-injured adults recover after three months of unconsciousness. Neurologists also say that children, with their still-growing and more elastic brains, have a better prospect for recovery from brain injuries than adults.

Yet, shockingly, the state Department of Social Services had first sought to terminate Haleigh's life support only three weeks after her hospitalization, after doctors declared her to be virtually brain-dead. Because her records are sealed, we don't know what tests were done to reach this conclusion. It certainly looks like the DSS showed unseemly haste in wanting life support discontinued.

This is the same DSS which had previously overlooked repeated signs that Haleigh was being severely abused. Adoptive mother Holli Strickland, who later committed suicide after being charged with assaulting Haleigh, had managed to convince the social workers that the girl's numerous physical injuries were self-inflicted. (If the child was so emotionally disturbed that she was constantly harming herself, shouldn't she have been placed into treatment?)

Some caution that the high cost of caring for comatose patients may become a financial incentive to end life support. Did such considerations influence the decision-making at the DSS? All of this warrants investigation. But, contrary to the overheated claims of right-to-life advocates, the officials and doctors are not death-happy ghouls: They were quick to order new tests after Haleigh's biological mother reported that she saw some signs of improvement.

All of us -- journalists, politicians, concerned citizens -- must make sure that Haleigh gets every chance at life she can have. I would suggest, however, that the vocal champions of Terri Schiavo's ''right to live" stay away from this case. After the falsehoods and the hysteria they propagated about Schiavo, their involvement here could only do harm.

The ''save Terri" brigade turned a tragedy into a macabre circus. Politicians such as Representative Tom Delay, a Texas Republican, and pundits such as Fox News's Sean Hannity embraced patently absurd claims that Schiavo was able to communicate and even talk. They made wildly misleading claims about the medical credentials of ''experts" who said Schiavo could be conscious. They asserted that Schiavo's coma may have been caused by abuse from her husband, Michael.

With their cries of ''medical terrorism" and their comparisons to Nazi Germany, these so-called champions of life created an atmosphere in which some of their supporters made death threats not only to Michael Schiavo but to judges and legislators who had been on the ''wrong" side of the dispute.

This kind of support is the last thing Haleigh Poutre needs. Haleigh's cause should be championed -- by those who have the moral authority and the credibility to speak about it. This case raises many disturbing issues, from the efficacy of child protection to care for comatose patients. It deserves to be in the spotlight; it does not deserve to be turned into Terri Schiavo II.


A few days ago, Malkin responded to my earlier blogpost on the subject.

Says Malkin:

Young concedes the case deserves public attention, but then castigates those of us who are using our little keyboards to give Haleigh just that.

So, no, sorry, I won't shut up. And I don't plan on watching silently as we head toward Hollandization.


But, of course, I didn't castigate those who are "using their little keyboards" to give Haleigh public attention. I said that those who have squandred their credibility and moral authority by either lying or uncritically repeating lies about the Schiavo case ought to stay away from this one. I say this for the same reason that, for instance, if there was a black teenage girl came forward with a credible complaint of being raped by white policemen, I don't think it would be particularly helpful for Al Sharpton, of Tawana Brawley fame, to appoint himself her champion.

I also believe that it doesn't particularly help Haleigh to have her tragedy exploited to score points against right-to-die advocates.

Thankfully, Haleigh is now getting not only public attention but help. All we can do is hope and (if we believe in prayer) pray that this terrible story may have a happy ending.


29 comments:

Lori Heine said...

This poor little soul deserves to be championed on her own merits. I wonder just what's wrong with us, as a society, that so many can be so jaded about what happens to Haleigh. For a lot of the "culture war" journalists on both ends of the spectrum, human life seems no longer to have any value in and of itself. It all pales in comparison to the almighty importance of politics.

Shame on Michelle Malkin for trying to pick a fight with Cathy about this. It's obvious, from the column she wrote, that Cathy is trying to call attention to the little girl's plight and to get us to see this case as one totally separate from Terri Schiavo's. She is trying to wake us up from our jaded state and get us to think, once again, about people as individuals.

Haleigh isn't old enough yet to be a Republican or a Democrat. She may never get the chance even to determine such a thing. I'm glad at least a few folks out there are interested in what becomes of her, nonetheless.

The whole right-to-die issue is vastly too complex for any decent, thinking person to take any once-and-for-all-time side. Public pressure may need to be brought to bear on the medical professionals who hold the power of life and death over this child. And that public needs to be informed by media people of substance and conscience. Malkin fails yet again.

Cathy Young said...

Well, in all fairness I don't think Malkin was trying to "pick a fight with me" -- I took a swipe at her first. But she was trying to turn this case into a platform for a "right-to-life" agenda (hence my swipe).

Mark B. said...

As far as I can tell, Malkin and her ilk don't give a good goddamn about Haleigh the human being - they're just using her to try to regain the credibility they forfeited in the Schiavo case.

Malkin spent far more time throwing darts at her opponents than in outlining the sordid facts of this case, and thus defeats her own cause. She's still a strident, utterly untrustworthy spokesperson for the Right-To-Life Brigade, and all of her yowling won't change that fact.

Mr. Grouchypants said...

The right-to-life crowd certainly exploited the Schiavo situation. But how many people would even be talking about Poutre had the Schiavo affair not gotten the attention that it did?

Cathy Young said...

Mr. Grouchypants: I think that this case would have drawn attention, Schiavo or no Schiavo. The fact that the stepfather who was the child's accuse assailant was fighting to keep her alive so as to avoid a murder charge was certainly newsworthy, as was the fact that DSS had repeatedly overlooked signs of abuse.

Joan said...

I have to take issue with this line: [Schiavo's] case had also undergone repeated court review.

You seem to think, Cathy, that the facts of the case were reviewed multiple times, which is simply not true. The procedures of the case were examined multiple times, but the initial finding of fact, by a less-than-impartial judge, was never revisited. The last-minute Congressional action was an attempt to require a new review of the facts of the case, which were greatly disputed.

But an appeals court never looks at the findings of fact; they look at the manner in which the case was conducted. If the judge made an error in the finding of fact, it's very difficult to get redress for that. And of course, the entire case rests on the findings of fact. An appeals court will order a retrial only if it finds procedural errors. The general assumption is, the judge always gets the facts right.

I was devastated when Terri was forced to die alone, without her parents. I was further horrified when Michael Schiavo had her buried at a location he did not disclose to her parents. The whole situation was a disgusting mess. Michael Schiavo had already moved on; why wouldn't he just give up the custody of his wife to her parents? None of it makes any sense at all. I simply do not believe that Terri had made a definitive statement of her wishes prior to her accident -- certainly there was no proof that she had ever done so. Without a definitive statement, I believe we should err on the side of life.

Of the politicians and other public figures involved in the Schiavo struggle, I'm sure some were in it only for the political points they thought they could score. But I'm also sure that many of them were sincerely appalled that we'd let a woman be starved and dehydrated to death simply because her husband wanted her to die. I don't think it's accurate to brand everyone involved in the fight to save Terri as the opportunistic ghouls you have made them out to be.

I'm glad that Haleigh is doing well now, and I hope she never becomes a political talking point past inspiring a clean-sweep of the DSS and an overhaul of all of the systems which failed her so thoroughly.

Mr. Grouchypants said...

The case would have attracted attention but not nearly as much as it has. So far, most of the references to Poutre's story have been in stories and posts that compare her to Schiavo. Of course the fact that her stepfather was trying to save her to save himself would make the story more newsworthy than most child abuse stories. But instances of overlooked abuse probably aren't rare enough to attract national attention.

Now I don't wish to defend the right-to-life crowd's actions. While some of them were likely sincere, there was a lot of self-serving motives for their behavior. But some good did come out of it by making cases like Poutre and the Magourik woman in Georgia more visible.

John Cole said...

The procedures of the case were examined multiple times, but the initial finding of fact, by a less-than-impartial judge, was never revisited.

And the bullshit never stops. What about Republican Southern Baptist (now no longer with them) Judge Greer makes you think he was not impartial and was biased against poor Terri Schiavo?

What in the THREE court-ordered guardian ad litem reports makes you think Terri's case was insufficiently examined?

W.B. Reeves said...

I think that this case would have drawn attention, Schiavo or no Schiavo. The fact that the stepfather who was the child's accuse assailant was fighting to keep her alive so as to avoid a murder charge was certainly newsworthy, as was the fact that DSS had repeatedly overlooked signs of abuse.

Absolutely. The entire case reads like something torn from the pages of a "Law and Order" script. In fact, I won't be surprised if an identical storyline pops up on one of their franchises next season.

The case would have attracted attention but not nearly as much as it has. So far, most of the references to Poutre's story have been in stories and posts that compare her to Schiavo.

I think Cathy's point is that this kind of attention isn't helpful. It's another attempt to turn a tragedy into a political football.

If I were as cynical as Malkin and her cohorts, I wouldn't have criticized their efforts. I'd have encouraged them. If anything could have deepened their discredit after the Schiavo tragi-farce, lining up with Haleigh's degenerate stepfather would have been it.

Here's hoping that Haleigh's improvement continues. Likewise I hope the DSS's handling of the case gets a thorough airing.

Anonymous said...

joan has obviously not read Ms. Schiavo's autopsy report. You can see it here:

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,159733,00.html

(Yes, that's a Fox News link. They were the loudest ones spreading lies about Schiavo's condition, but afterwards they were honest enough to publish the facts. Credit where due.)

To summarize: Schiavo was brain dead, and had been for years. Here's an exact quote from the report:

"The decedent's brain was grossly abnormal and weighed only 615 grams . . . less than half the expected tabular weight . . . ."

Pooh said...

But an appeals court never looks at the findings of fact;

This is, in a word, completely, and mendaciously, inaccurate. The scope of the review of factual findings is more limited then the review of legal issues (for good reason, I might add, credibility determinations, whether made by a judge or a jury, are better made in person than on the page.) But that does not mean that there is 'no review' of factual determinations.

Mr. Grouchypants said...

I'm not convinced that the attention Malkin is bringing to the case is necessarily harmful. If Poutre was in imminent danger of having the plug pulled, I think that would be a case of there being no such thing as bad publicity.

And if the story is newsworthy enough on its own merits, then why aren't more people blogging about it without referencing Malkin or Schiavo?

W.B. Reeves said...

And if the story is newsworthy enough on its own merits, then why aren't more people blogging about it without referencing Malkin or Schiavo?

Possibly because Haleigh is now breathing on her own and the authorities seem to be taking appropriate action. That being the case, Malkin and Company's foray into the story would appear to be the only bone left to gnaw on.

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

Seems like a slippery article that avoids the substance of the matter. It appears the right-to-life crowd has a solid case in Poutre: that in (at least some) difficult cases we should err on the side of keeping people alive. It plays out the exact scenario of spontaneous recovery they incorrectly thought possible for Schiavo. Regardless of the bombastic rhetoric and whatever you think of Malkin, can we at least agree this somewhat redeems the respectibility of the pro-life position, offering as it does a case in which the highest court in the state mistakenly sustained a kill order? Being charitable and admitting this is so in no way diminishes the value of Haleigh Poutre as an individual.

Anonymous: severe, irreversable brain damage is not the same as "brain-dead." Cathy uses the same incorrect terminology in her article, albeit with "virtually" as a qualifier. I believe to be "brain dead" is to be not just vegetative but dead by all measures. Nobody able to breathe unassisted, for example, can be described accurately as "brain dead."

Mr. Grouchypants said...

Wouldn't the fact that she is breathing on her own make her story more newsworthy rather than less so? After all, her condition was supposed to be irreversible. Wasn't that the justification for removing life support?

W.B. Reeves said...

Wouldn't the fact that she is breathing on her own make her story more newsworthy rather than less so? After all, her condition was supposed to be irreversible. Wasn't that the justification for removing life support?

One might think so but no. The fact that Haleigh no longer requires a ventilator has transformed the situation. We are now in a wait and see posture, deprived of the urgency that the story had when it was thought that shutting off the ventilator would result in immediate death.

Mr. Grouchypants said...

One might think so but no. The fact that Haleigh no longer requires a ventilator has transformed the situation. We are now in a wait and see posture, deprived of the urgency that the story had when it was thought that shutting off the ventilator would result in immediate death.

If Haleigh continues to improve, then the urgency of the situation would only increase since we would be faced with a case of the state mistakingly attempting to put someone to death. It is still too early to tell if that is in fact the case, but it does appear that the state jumped the gun.

And while it would be better if the story could be discussed without the input of people like Malkin or many of the pro-life groups, I don't believe that it would attract as much publicity. Disability rights groups discuss these types of situations, but not too many people seem to notice.

W.B. Reeves said...

Grouch,

The story is Haleigh and her situation, not the "issue". If Haleigh is no longer in jeopardy, there is no urgency. Thats the way the media works. Human interest, not ideas.

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

Here's the
wiki entry for brain death:

shaziak said...

hiya Cathy, thanks for the comment on my entry. Was a unexpected but pleasant surprise! (A smart person comented *yay)lol. I've just checked out your page and all I can say is 'wow'. I don't know anything about most of the stuff you write about but it would be nice to chat some more!

Anonymous said...

Cathy,

Read it yesterday. I also thought the guest editorial by the gentleman with cancer was tremendously thoughtful in tone, especially since it abstained from outright policy advocacy in favor of simply asking people to do their honest best to fully understand the perspective of the dying before hardening their view as to what policy is appropriate. I was moved.

-bk

Cathy Young said...

I usually delete abusive comments, but I thought I'd let the one by "Truth Detector" stand because, well, it's just so irresistibly charming. Mindless zealotry, misogyny and xenophobia all rolled into one; who could ask for anything more? I wonder if "Truth Detector" was one of the same "pro-life" people who emailed Glenn Reynolds to wish a Terri Schiavo-like fate upon his wife, who had just undergone heart surgery.

As for Mr. Schindler: he is a grieving man who has been through an ordeal few of us can imagine, and I will refrain from any judgments there. I will say only that Dr. Cranford was only one of seven neurologists who examined Terri Schiavo and concluded that she was in an irreversible persistent vegetative state. Only one neurologist who examined her personally claimed that she was not -- Dr. William Hammefahr (hired by the Schindlers), whom the "champions" of Terri Schiavo tried to pass off as a Nobel Prize nominee and who is, in fact, in all likelihood a charlatan.

Prior to Terri Schiavo's death, her "supporters" claimed that she was not in a PVS. Now, some of them evidently want the PVS diagnosis eliminated altogether.

As for how long Haleigh Poutre should have been kept alive in a vegetative state: the American Academy of Pediatrics takes the position that if a child has been in a vegetative state for 12 months, that state should be considered irreversible and life support can be withdrawn. I have no quarrel with that position.

Do the "pro-lifers" believe that a child who lapses into a vegetative state should be kept "alive" for decades, consuming resources that could have been used to improve health care for children and others who actually are alive?

Revenant said...

Much of the anti-death-penalty movement has discreditted itself by embracing the cause of people like Mumia Abu-Jamal and Tookie Williams. I'd still hesitate to criticize them if they took up the cause of an actually innocent person discovered on death row, though.

As obnoxious as the Schiavo pro-lifers were (and are), this does seem to be a case where their hypothetical nightmare scenario -- a true innocent sentenced to death by wrongheaded doctors and government officials -- pretty nearly came true.

Anonymous said...

The Schiavo partisans fought for a quite noble goal --- the prevention of the death of somebody powerless to stop it. If they were "right" or not is immaterial and, also, impossible to determine. How they can be viewed as losing "legitimacy" for fighting to protect somebody from a death nobody else would wish to suffer is lost on me.

But, even if you truly believe they were "wrong", should they never speak out again? The DNC has a history of civil rights abuses that is truly astonishing -- should they NEVER speak up against what they legitimately feel is racism because they were once completely on the wrong side of an issue? The US permitted slavery. Should we NEVER speak out against man's inhumanity to man again because of it?

That the state was willing to so quickly "pull the plug" on Haleigh is, to be generous, unbelievably alarming. It, sadly, demonstrates that the fears of the pro-Schiavo forces were legitimate fears as now see a girl who had been in a "vegetative state" for a very brief time and one that she could have --- and, eventually did --- pull out of nearly killed because somebody didn't think she'd make it.

-=Mike

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