A Connecticut teenager in the middle of a year-long custody fight between her parents and the Massachusetts child-protection agency is likely to remain for now at a Framingham residential facility where she’s been for the past month, and not move to a North Shore foster care placement that was discussed in juvenile court Monday, according to two sources briefed on the case.
At the closed-door hearing this week, Juvenile Court Judge Joseph Johnston spoke about a plan by the state Department of Children and Families to transfer 15-year-old Justina Pelletier to Shared Living Collaborative in Merrimac. But this facility has apparently backed away from the idea, largely because of the highly contentious nature of the case and the national media attention it has drawn, these sources said.
Meanwhile, one of the sources said the judge on Monday expressed openness to allowing Justina to return back to her West Hartford, Conn., home to live with her parents, as long as certain oversight conditions were met. Lawyers representing Justina’s parents are expected to help look into such a plan and report back to the court on March 17.
When the Globe contacted Shared Living Collaborative Wednesday morning and asked about its role in the Pelletier case, a staffer said “no comment” and hung up.
The nonprofit group was possibly in for some unwanted public exposure this weekend after the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, head of the Christian Defense Coalition based in Washington, D.C., sent out a notice on social media about a vigil to be held Saturday in front of the facility in Merrimac.
It called for “people of faith and good will to stand in solidarity with the Pelletier family and join us at a vigil and public witness at the facility.” Mahoney’s group is one of several national conservative Christian groups that have rallied behind the Pelletiers because of what they perceive as the government trampling on parental rights.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Mahoney acknowledged that he had heard Justina is not going to be moved to the Merrimac facility. He said that the place backed out “when they heard we were doing a demonstration.” He said his group is now organizing a weekend prayer vigil at the residential facility in Framingham, Wayside Youth and Family Support Network. The girl has been living there since January, when she was released from Boston Children’s Hospital after nearly a year, most of that time in a locked psychiatric ward.
He said he understands that the Framingham facility cares for young people with emotional and special needs, among other issues, and his group will take measures to be sure that “if you’re inside the facility, you won’t be able to see us.”
The North Shore foster care facility is apparently one of a number of places that have backed out after seriously looking into taking Justina.
Late last summer, Webster House in New Britain, Conn., considered accepting Justina after discussions with the Department of Children and Families but backed out after the girl’s father, Lou Pelletier, threatened to sue if it took his daughter. Later, Justina’s parents softened their view of the Webster House after visiting the place, but by early September, the facility’s administrator e-mailed the father: “We have determined, unfortunately, that we are unable to take on the risk of becoming involved in a protracted legal battle that could be very costly.”
The Pelletier case involves a controversial and increasingly used term called medical child abuse—which refers to parents who seek excessive and potentially harmful care for their children—and highlights challenges that the medical community faces in diagnosing patients who exhibit both troubling physical and psychiatric symptoms.
Justina’s parents insist that their daughter suffers from mitochondrial disorder, a group of genetic ailments that affect how cells produce energy, often causing problems with the gut, brain, and muscles. Justina’s physicians at Tufts Medical Center had been treating her for this illness for about a year, saying she exhibited many of its symptoms, and were still in the midst of determining if she had a clear-cut case of this disorder.
Then last February, Justina was brought to Children’s Hospital after suffering severe intestinal issues, and having trouble walking. Doctors there, in a matter of a few days, concluded that her problems were primarily psychiatric, and that the parents were ignoring the root cause of her problems and pushing for unnecessary medical interventions.
When the parents sought to discharge Justina, the hospital filed medical child abuse charges, which were ultimately supported by the state and later a juvenile court judge.
Children’s Hospital, while still monitoring her medical care, has said in a statement that it has been pleased with the girl’s progress in and out of the hospital. Justina’s parents, however, contend that her condition has worsened in the past year, and that she can now only move around in a wheelchair.