After 16 months in state custody, teenager Justina Pelletier finally gets to go home and by all accounts, she is not only happy, she is extremely excited. The 16-year-old has been in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families after juvenile court Judge Joseph Johnston removed her from her parent’s care following a medical child abuse dispute. Now, that same judge has ordered that Pelletier be returned to the care of her parents, Lou and Linda Pelletier who will welcome their daughter back to their family home in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Pelletier has been the focus of a major legal battle between her parents and the state of Massachusetts which, based on claims of medical child abuse made by health officials at Children’s Hospital, mandated her into state custody. The case not only drew the attention of the media, it inspired a national conversation that included concerned parents, legal experts and armchair pundits who questioned not only the advisability but the legality of Pelletier’s removal from her parent’s care.
In February of 2013, Pelletier was admitted to Boston Children’s Hospital and, at that time, her parents informed the medical staff that their child was suffering from mitochondrial disease. The disease results from a functional failure of mitochondria, which are found in every cell of the human body and according to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, are responsible for producing “more than 90% of the energy needed by the body to sustain life and support growth.” Symptoms of the disease are extremely debilitating and may include loss of motor control, muscle pain, and a multitude of complications including cardiac and liver disease, seizures, muscle weakness and developmental delays. In addition, those afflicted with mitochondrial disease are more prone to infection and respiratory complications.
Pelletier had previously been diagnosed with mitochondrial disease by the Chief of Metabolism at Tufts Medical Center, Dr. Mark Korson, and he had been treating the afflicted teen for more than a year. When her symptoms became acute in February of 2013, Korson sent the family to Children’s Hospital for treatment only because Tuft’s gastroenterologist, who had also been treating Pelletier, had relocated to that facility. Despite this medical history, three days after being admitted, doctors at Children’s Hospital dismissed the mitochondrial disease diagnosis believing that the teen was suffering from a psychiatric disorder – going so far as to remove all medications that had been prescribed for Pelletier by her physicians at Tufts Medical Center.
Outraged, Pelletier’s parents tried to have their daughter discharged from the hospital so that they could seek the medical care she needed at another facility. Children’s Hospital authorities contacted the Massachusetts child protection agency claiming that Lou and Linda Pelletier would harm their daughter by transferring her to another facility and that they were forcing unnecessary medical treatments on Justina – grounds for a medical child abuse case. On Valentine’s Day, 2013, the state’s child protection agency took full custody of Justina Pelletier thus beginning her parent’s fight to bring their daughter back home.
This is not the first time a controversial diagnosis of a new or less understood disease has resulted in a custody battle involving accusation of medical child abuse. According to the Boston Globe, during the same 2013 period that Pelletier was admitted to Children’s Hospital, a 5-year-old Massachusetts girl, who had also been previously treated for mitochondrial disorder, was also admitted to that facility. Just as in Pelletier’s case, the child’s mother lost custody of her daughter – a pattern that has been seen in numerous similar cases.
For Pelletier’s parents the child custody fight is over and their daughter will be returning to their care. The family lawyer, Philip Moran has said that it is a “wonderful feeling to see that this little girl will be able to go home.” As for Justina, she recently posted a video on Face Book in which she begged authorities to return her to her parents. In that video she reminded them that she wanted to be with her family and friends saying, “You can do it. You’re the one’s judging this. Please let me go home.” At least for now, Justina Pelletier will get her wish and her parents will finally have their daughter back in their care.
By Alana Marie Burke