Boston Children’s Hospital has been shrouded in controversy after a Boston family court judge handed down a ruling that denies two parents from Connecticut custody of their child. Judge Joseph Johnston ruled on December 20 that Justina Pellitier, 15, would remain in the custody of the state pending an independent investigation into her case. She is currently being held in the psychiatric ward in Boston Children’s Hospital, where she has been receiving treatment for the last 10 months.
Details on the circumstances surrounding Justina’s removal from her parents’ care are somewhat sparse thanks to gag orders and confidentiality constraints. What is known is that Justina had been diagnosed with mitochondrial disease prior to her hospitalization and her parents, Lou and Linda Pellitier, had been treating her for it. In February of 2013 she was rushed to the hospital after having severe flu-like symptoms. During this hospitalization, her diagnosis was contended by some of the doctors and within three days her parents were being charged with “medical child abuse” after doctors insisted that they were treating her with invasive procedures for a disease she did not have. She was subsequently diagnosed with somatoform disorder.
It has been reported that the charges of child abuse were filed after Justina’s parents attempted to remove her from Boston Children’s Hospital and take her back to Connecticut to the doctor who had been previously treating her. Other reports indicate that Lou and Linda had been investigated previously in Connecticut and were historically “combative” with hospital personnel when disagreements occurred.
This is not the first instance of Boston Children’s Hospital filing abuse claims that have resulted in parents going to court to fight for custody of their child. There are at least five other cases of child abuse charges being filed after a disagreement about diagnosis between parents and Boston Children’s Hospital in the last year and a half. At least one of these other cases involves the same controversial diagnosis. There are some groups who criticize the hospital for having internal friction that creates an environment that is primed for disagreements in diagnosis and accuses the doctors of being too willing to involve the state.
Boston Children’s Hospital does have a great reputation for its level of care. Many more children than not are treated successfully at the hospital without being removed from their parents’ custody.
The term “medical child abuse” indicates that the hospital feels that the parents were willfully ignoring medical advice and treatment options that the hospital felt were in the child’s best interest. In this case, the doctor’s felt that Justina was suffering from a psychiatric condition, known as somatoform disorder and was in need of psychiatric help that she was not receiving. Because the diagnosis of mitochondrial disease was not accepted by her doctors, the current treatments she was on were viewed to be unnecessary.
Unnecessary medical treatments, especially invasive ones are one of a few red flags that appear that alert to possible cases of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. This is a mental illness that often results in a child being made ill by a parent. Other signs of a possible issue with this illness include excessive involvement in the child’s treatment, belligerence towards medical staff who don’t agree with the parent, frequent changes in doctors, and intentionally ignoring medical advice that the parent doesn’t agree with.
There is no indication that either Lou or Linda have been diagnosed with Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. It is merely the hospital’s responsibility to protect children from the devastating effects that are possible should this illness be presenting itself. Why the case has taken nearly a year to get to this point is unknown but Johnston has ordered an independent investigation take place and the next court date is possibly set for January 10. It will be the next step in determining whether or not Justina can finally leave Boston Children’s Hospital and whether or not her parents will be given or denied custody of their child.
By Vanessa Blanchard