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Ailing girl home, ending 16-month custody saga

Justina Pelletier’s diagnosis set off family’s fight with state child welfare agency

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The next steps for Justina Pelletier are to eat a grilled hamburger and watch a movie with her family — all in her own home, which she hasn't seen in about 16 months.

"Bye, guys! Going home!" Justina, 16, called out to onlookers Wednesday morning as she and mother Linda Pelletier left a Connecticut long-term care facility en route to her home in West Hartford.

The teen, wearing a hair bow, blue sunglasses, denim jacket and dress, cannot walk, but was carried to the front door by her father, Lou Pelletier.

Justina's two-state child custody saga ended Wednesday, but family members say they will not stay silent about the actions of Massachusetts medical and child welfare officials. "This is just the beginning," Mr. Pelletier told The Boston Globe.

"There's going to be a Justina's law" to prevent children from being taken from their families, he said. "I'm going to be the guy that's going to change that."

Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which supported the family's legal efforts to regain custody of their youngest daughter, said Wednesday that the case was "emotionally draining" for everyone but was "now closed."

Justina's plight drew international attention to the issue of parents' rights when disputes arise over a child's medical condition. The case reportedly involved a charge of "medical child abuse," a term used when parents or caregivers are believed to be inventing or exaggerating a child's symptoms to gain attention and sympathy for themselves or others.

Because of health privacy laws, details about Justina's case — including testimony before Boston Juvenile Court Judge Joseph F. Johnston — are not public.

After a comprehensive hearing late last year, Judge Johnston awarded custody of Justina to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, the same agency that took Justina into custody not long after she was brought to Boston Children's Hospital with flulike symptoms in February 2013.

The custody fight started with that visit: At Boston Children's Hospital, doctors assessed Justina, then 14, and diagnosed somatoform disorder, a mental health condition related to stress. Justina's parents rejected that diagnosis and the doctors' treatment plans, saying Justina was being treated successfully at Tufts Medical Center for a physical disorder known as mitochondrial disease.

Officials at Boston Children's Hospital called in the Department of Children and Families, which took custody of Justina and placed her in a psychiatric ward for nearly a year. The Pelletiers were granted restricted access to their daughter.

Rob Graham, a spokesman for Boston Children's Hospital, said Wednesday that details of the case were private but the diagnosis and treatment plan were "thorough" and in accordance with best practices in the view of a clinical team that included specialists in gastroenterology, cardiology and mitochondrial disorders, both in and out of the hospital.

"The patient made progress while she was in our care, and has continued to progress" since she left Boston Children's Hospital in January to enter a residential facility in Massachusetts, Mr. Graham said.

Judge Johnston's March ruling to give the Department of Children and Families custody of Justina, however, set off a public outcry that resulted in the involvement of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and state lawmakers.

Lawyers with Liberty Counsel filed papers to have Justina released to her parents at the end of May. On Tuesday, Judge Johnston issued a ruling saying that, since medical, social, educational and other services were now in place, custody of Justina would be returned to her parents.

"The Court's ruling reflects a thorough review of this complex case, and we are very pleased with the result," said John Polanowicz, Massachusetts secretary of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Department of Children and Families.

Massachusetts state Rep. Leonard Mirra, a Republican, who in April filed a constituent's petition to release Justina to her parents, said Wednesday that he didn't foresee legislation on the matter.

"We're just happy to see that she's going home," said Mr. Mirra. "The state badly bungled her case, and it took way too long to get it justified and clarified. We're all happy to see it finally come to a resolution."

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