Parents of Justina Pelletier to Appeal Judge’s DCF Custody Decision

Justina Pelletier

Justina PelletierLiberty Counsel is to follow every possible legal process to return Justina Pelletier to her parents in Connecticut so she can get medical care, access to a priest, and an education. This follows a court order late yesterday granting the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) continued custody of the desperately ill teenager until at least June 20 this year. In a press release issued last night, the international nonprofit organization said it would be filing a habeas corpus petition or an appeal against the judge’s custody decision.

Mat Staver, chairman of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel and the lawyer who will lead the appeal, described the situation as a “tragedy” and said the DCF was holding Justina prisoner after they “essentially kidnapped” her in February last year. Staver said he had “never seen a more barbaric overreach by a state agency.” It was not acceptable that the court was yet again “kicking the can down the road,” he said.

The ongoing saga began when Lou and Linda Pelletier took their daughter, Justina to Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) in February last year so she could be seen by gastroenterologist, Dr. Alejandro Flores who had previously treated her at Tufts Medical Center (also in Boston) for severe gastrointestinal problems caused by mitochondrial disease (mito). Instead doctors at BCH decided her problems were psychiatric and not medical, and changed the diagnosis to somatoform disorder, which is psychosomatic but with physical symptoms. Justina was not examined by Dr. Flores, who knew her medical history, and the doctors at Tufts were not consulted.

The court custody battle was initiated by the Pelletiers over a year ago; this is the first ruling in writing that has been issued by the judge, Joseph F. Johnston. The Pelletiers have been waiting for a final decision from Judge Johnston regarding custody since mid-December last year. He had postponed making any decision six times, until yesterday, when he issued the disposition order regarding the “care and protection of Justina Pelletier.”

It is understood that Staver’s application to be admitted officially onto the case as the Pelletier’s lawyer was also denied. He needs court approval because he is from another state and would be taking over from existing counsel, but has said that this is usually a formality. Nevertheless Staver was quick to announce his intention to appeal the judge’s DCF custody decision on behalf of Justina’s parents, stating that she has been refused “adequate medical care,” access to “clergy or communion,” and has not been given “any meaningful education” in the past 13 months.

Judge Johnston’s Disposition Order

Judge Johnston outlined the history of the case and his findings in a four-page written ruling faxed to relevant parties, ultimately stating that he was granting continued custody of Justina to the MA DCF. This order was subject to “the parties right to a review and redetermination” six months from December 20, 2013, which is when the custody case ended and the decision regarding custody should have been made. So the ruling is not “permanent” as stated in some media reports.

Judge Johnston repeated the finding he made on December 20, 2013, that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Justina was “a child in need of care and protection” because of the “conduct and inability of her parents” to provide for her “necessary and proper physical, mental, and emotional development.”

He ruled that it was necessary for “the parents” to be psychologically and clinically evaluated by the Connecticut DCF. However he stated throughout the report that the CT DCF has refused to become involved in the case from day one. Firstly it refused to accept the case when it was originally filed in Massachusetts 13 months ago, he said. Then it refused to take action when the MA DCF filed a “report of neglect of Justina” by her parents, maintaining the case was “under investigation.” Although the CT DCF notified the court in December that it had “substantiated the parents for neglect,” it would not take responsibility for the case and declined to file in the Connecticut court. In February it was agreed by all parties, including Lou and Linda Pelletier, that the CT DCF would be given temporary custody of Justina Pelletier pending transfer of the case to her home state, he said. But the Connecticut court refused to get involved stating there was no action pending in Connecticut.

The judge maintained that Justina was “ready for discharge” from BCH in June 2013, but was not discharged because her parents “significantly hampered” efforts of the MA DCF to find somewhere suitable to place her. He claimed that since “adjudication,” when the custody case had been heard and a finding was to be given, he had considered granting the Pelletiers “conditional custody.” He said he had decided not to due to the parents’ conduct that included verbal abuse, calling hospital personnel “Nazis,” using “profanity directed at the MA DCF personnel in Justina’s presence,” and claiming “the hospital was punishing and killing Justina.” He also blamed the Pelletiers for the inability of the DCF to be able to place her in a facility in Connecticut, where she would be close to home.

The judge ended the ruling by stating that the MA DCF must make “heightened efforts” to transfer Justina to Connecticut and transfer “both the clinical and legal case to Connecticut.” The court would, he said continue to “assist in the return of Justina to her home state of Connecticut.”

Lou Pelletier Speaks Out

Directly after Judge Johnston’s custody ruling was released, Lou Pelletier was interviewed on Fox TV in Boston. He said he was “very angry” but not surprised because this judge had continually ignored overwhelming evidence. He said Justina needed to be home, because “she is mentally, and more importantly, physically dying” under the care of the state of Massachusetts, the BCH and the MA DCF.

Asked why this was happening, he said, “It’s happening because it can!” All the hospital has to do is have its child protection team call the DCF; and in Massachusetts, the DCF does not have its own medical director which they are required to by law, so they rely on BCH. There were two reasons the child protection team stepped in to their case, he said. Firstly they were not prepared to follow the hospital’s protocol by agreeing Justina be taken off all her medication (including a vitamin cocktail and medicine for a rapid heart rate) – “which no sane person would do.” Secondly, because they were accused of “medical child abuse.” He said Justina had two surgeries, one to remove a congenital band that had become wrapped around her colon and appendix several years ago. The other was to insert a port into her colon. These procedures and all other medication had been prescribed by doctors at Tufts and approved by insurance, he said.

On a positive note, he said the ground swell of support had reached record numbers, with between 13 to 15 million hits on Twitter because, “the country is fed-up with what is happening.” He said “it is a national tragedy” that happens in some hospital every day. People “go down this rabbit hole with no recourse to get recovery.” At least by making people aware of what was happening, they could not ignore Justina’s declining physical condition, he said.

Lou Pelletier said the whole situation was an “infringement of our parental rights” and that the Government was “intruding into people’s lives for no reason.” He said he had absolutely no doubt that Justina suffers from mito, especially since her older sister Jessica has the same condition – confirmed by a muscle biopsy.

Commenting on their decision to appeal the judge’s DCF custody decision, the father of Justina Pelletier said they would go to Massachusetts Supreme Court, the Federal Court, and to the court of public opinion. “The country is enraged” and all parents need to be aware of what is happening, he said.

By Penny Swift

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One thought on “Parents of Justina Pelletier to Appeal Judge’s DCF Custody Decision

  1. I’m waiting for the reporters to ask themselves how many other cases such as this occur in the child welfare system. The answer is: hundreds, thousands. To parent advocates such as myself, this is not an isolated incident, but typical behavior of child protection agencies in every state. Most parents don’t speak out for fear of retaliation and it is threatened routinely. Common quote by a social worker “If you do not submit to my demands, you will never see your child again”.

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