A girl who nine years ago was expected never to regain consciousness and was abandoned by Massachusetts welfare authorities, hospital medical staff, and the courts now watches the Disney Channel, enjoys the music of Justin Bieber and her Westfield Evangelical Free Church congregation, and tells her adoptive parents she loves them.
Haleigh, now 20, is by all accounts a happy woman living surrounded by love with her siblings, her adoptive parents Keith and Becky Arnett, and other foster children the couple have taken in over the years.
But Haleigh is far from typical. Once the center of a public furore over official negligence and passive euthanasia, she now relies on a wheelchair for mobility and reads and understands the world at a Grade Seven level because of the terrible abuse by her aunt and uncle, Holli and Jason Strickland.
The Arnetts recently talked to the Boston Globe about life with Haleigh in order to draw attention to the need for more foster parents to deal with the 7,000-plus children removed from their families of origin yearly for their own protection. This is doubly apt: Haleigh’s abuse occurred only after state child welfare authorities moved her from her mother’s care to her aunt’s when the latter complained about her natural mother’s negligence. But it was her foster parents who physically abused her for years and transformed her from a cheerful music-loving, bicycle-riding young girl into someone medical staff and a judge agreed was in a permanent “vegetative state” appropriate to be removed from life support.
It turned out there had been a dozen complaints to child welfare authorities before her foster parents brought her to the emergency room covered in injuries and comatose, and medical staff called police in 2005. But officials had always preferred to believe Holli, a licenced child care operator, who told them the injuries were self-inflicted.
Charged with assault, Holli made a suicide pact with her own grandmother and died before trial.
The scandal mounted as her doctors applied to remove Haleigh from life support, and lawyers echoed the arguments heard earlier that year in the case of Terry Schiavo. In both cases judges ordered life support removed, but while the Florida woman died days later, early in 2005, Haleigh did the opposite, recovering consciousness almost immediately.
While her awareness steadily improved, she was seriously disabled and in need of long-term care, either in an institution, or a foster family. In 2008 the state began looking for suitable foster parents.
They could scarcely have done better than the Arnetts, who were ardent foster parents and churchgoers. After viewing videos and hearing official warnings about her impairments (she needed diapers and a wheelchair), they agreed to take her in. “As devout Christians,” the Boston Globe reported, “they believed God’s work required sacrifices.” Though they had three boys of their own they had already taken in several foster children and saw fostering as an act of Christian love. Haleigh’s notoriety did not deter them.
Two years later, the Arnetts adopted Haleigh at a ceremony in their living room officiated by the same judge who had ordered the removal of life support, under an American flag brought in for the ceremony, with a Bible. The judge, James Collins, and various medical and welfare officials had made their mistakes but then worked for Haleigh’s recovery, said the Arnetts: they bore no grudges.
Though foster care typically earns parents $25 a day, a stipend that stops if the child is adopted, the Arnetts can draw on a special $5-million fund made of legal settlements from organizations which had failed to act on reports about Haleigh’s abuse or telltale physical evidence.
The family has ratcheted down its hopes that their daughter will someday learn to walk. She has lost interest—for now. They have made her fully a part of their family — a frequent outcome of fostering — and work with a group of others at their church to encourage more families to take in foster children.
“I’m not a great parent,” Keith Arnett told the Globe. “I fail and I falter…but I’m willing.” And his wife, who home-schools their children, is the same, he says. “We are two peas in a pod. We lean on each other all the time.” They are “committed to kids having homes.”