A traditional-values law firm is stepping up its efforts to assist a Connecticut family that has been embroiled in a public battle over custody of their sick teenage daughter.
Lou and Linda Pelletier say their daughter, Justina, 15, has been abused while in the court-enforced care of Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF).
The family, who lives in West Hartford, Conn., has been chronicling their 14-month saga at JusticeforJustina.com.
Attorney Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said Tuesday that supporters of Justina are calling for prayers and tens of thousands of “get well” cards for her. “We want to send Justina a strong message of hope from concerned Americans across the country” by delivering these cards by Easter Sunday, he said.
Moreover, Mr. Pelletier, daughter Jennifer and the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, a family spokesman, are in Washington, D.C., this week to meet with members of Congress to discuss issues like the violation of the Pelletiers’ religious freedom.
The family is Roman Catholic, but Justina has not had communion in 14 months because the state DCF has blocked clergy visits, Mr. Staver said. The teen’s federal rights to education have been also violated, he said, adding that legal papers on Justina’s case will be filed this week in a Massachusetts appellate court.
The case has been anything but simple.
In February 2013, Justina showed symptoms of flu and stomach problems, and the family’s doctor at Tufts Medical Center — who had participated in her treatment for mitochondrial disease for more than a year — advised the family to take her to see a specific doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH).
The Pelletiers, however, did not see the recommended doctor at BCH. Instead, Justina was examined by other BCH doctors, who discarded the “mito” diagnosis in favor of a psychiatric problem called somatoform disorder. These doctors recommended Justina be taken off her medicines and diet, and receive psychiatric care to address psychosomatic issues of pain, fatigue and gastrointestinal problems.
The Pelletiers strongly disagreed with the new diagnosis, but their efforts to bring Justina back to the Tufts Medical Center prompted the BCH doctors to call DCF. The child-welfare agency charged the parents with “medical child abuse” and took Justina into their care, thus permitting her to be placed at a psychiatric unit at BCH.
The Boston Globe reported in December that such parent-DCF disputes are not unheard of, and that BCH has been involved in at least five cases where parents have lost, or almost lost, custody of their children over medical diagnoses.
In a March 25 ruling, Judge Joseph F. Johnston, of Juvenile Court in Boston, gave the Massachusetts DCF continued custody of Justina as even “conditional custody” of Justina by her parents “is not in her best interest at this time.” He ordered the Massachusetts DCF to work harder to get the teen and her case transferred to Connecticut’s DCF.
The judge further noted that the Pelletier parents have engaged in outbursts, name-calling and obstructionist behaviors, delaying resolution of the case.
“Psychological and clinical evaluations” of Mr. and Mrs. Pelletier “are necessary,” and should be coordinated by the Connecticut DCF, the judge said in his ruling.
An update on Justina’s case can be presented to Judge Johnston in June.
Meanwhile, the Pelletier family is continuing to make their case through social networks, news media and political advocacy. They maintain that Justina has been unjustly taken from their care, that Justina’s condition has not improved in 14 months of state care, and their daughter has literally regressed by being cut off from family, friends, school and Catholic clergy for so much time.
In response, dozens of lawmakers in both Massachusetts and Connecticut have called for Justina to be returned to her family, saying “parents should have the last word” on medical care of their child.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at email@example.com.
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