Mass. agency says it is actively working to return Justina Pelletier to Connecticut

Massachusetts child protection officials are actively working to return 15-year-old Justina Pelletier, the teenager involved in a year-long custody fight that’s drawn national attention, to her home state of Connecticut, a spokesman for the state Department of Children and Families said Friday in the agency’s first public comment on the case.

The spokesman also told the Globe that Tufts Medical Center, the parents’ first-choice hospital to care for the girl, will be overseeing her medical care.

“Our primary goal has always been the health and well-being of Justina. We want the parents to be able to work with the providers and courts to ultimately move Justina back to her home state of Connecticut. That is the objective, and is consistent with our previous efforts to find an appropriate placement near her home,” said agency spokesman Alec Loftus.

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Loftus said a medical team has been identified at Tufts to oversee the girl’s care, a move that the parents have long sought. They have had an intensely antagonistic relationship with Boston Children’s Hospital, which had filed medical child abuse charges against the parents last February, beginning the highly emotional custody dispute that led to Pelletier being treated at Children’s for almost a year—most of the time in a locked psychiatric ward.

The timetable for the shift of the teenager to her home state has not been set, and it is unclear just how much the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families is retreating from the girl’s case. But Loftus said child-protection officials from both states, the juvenile judge handling the case, and lawyers for the parents are actively working on identifying a new placement in Connecticut. He would not say what places are under consideration, but in cases like this, the child could be returned back to her home, or placed in a foster home or a residential treatment facility.

If she were to live at her family’s home in West Hartford, Conn., child-protection officials in that state, who would likely oversee the case, would likely demand that the girl receive services at home or that she attend a day program.

Justina’s father, Lou Pelletier, reached by phone Friday morning as he was driving to the family’s weekly visit with Justina, said, “Obviously this is a step in the right direction.”

He added, however, that he is only cautiously optimistic. He has many memories of Massachusetts officials getting his hopes up for positive changes, only to have something happen that sabotages the plans, he said. The father has previously said that he and his wife would accept some kind of oversight by the Connecticut child-protection agency if that were a condition of getting Justina back to their home state.

The teen—whose story was detailed in a two-part Boston Globe series last December—is now residing in a program at Wayside Youth and Family Support Network in Framingham, where she was moved in January after being discharged from Children’s.

That transfer came after Juvenile Court Judge Joseph Johnston found, based on testimony from physicians and state social workers among others, that the girl’s parents were unfit to handle her complex physical and psychiatric problems, according to two sources briefed on the closed-door proceedings.

Loftus revealed that the Department of Children and Families is also dropping its complaint against Justina’s father for alleged violations of a gag order Johnston issued late last year. The agency had asked Johnston at a hearing on Monday to hold Lou Pelletier in contempt of court for several media interviews in the past few weeks, in which he complained that Massachusetts retained custody of his daughter against her parents’ will. He said he wants Justina, whose condition he claimed had deteriorated in the past year, to return home.

The dropping of the contempt of court complaint comes after many First Amendment lawyers criticized the far-reaching nature of the judge’s gag order, which prevented the parties from saying virtually anything about the case, and suggested that it was likely unconstitutional in its scope.

While many details have yet to be worked out, Friday’s announcement appears to be largely a victory for the parents, who have long said that they want their child returned to Connecticut and that they have far more trust in physicians at Tufts than at Children’s. It remains unclear which doctors at Tufts would be involved in her care, but Dr. Mark Korson, a metabolism specialist who had been treating Justina for mitochondrial disease before she went to Children’s last winter, is likely a major player on the team.

Child-protection officials also may have run out of options for her in Massachusetts. The judge Monday had announced the possibility that Justina would be moving soon to a foster care and treatment center in Merrimac, but that facility backed out soon after Rev. Patrick Mahoney, of the Christian Defense Coalition based on Washington, D.C., announced that he was organizing a vigil at the center to protest Justina’s placement there.

Mahoney’s is one of several national conservative Christian groups that have taken up the Pelletier case, seeing it as an example of government trampling on parental rights. Fridays announcement also comes among heightened criticism of the custody battle, including from some Massachusetts legislators, wondering why the state continues to keep custody of a girl when she has not shown profound improvement and the parents seem so eager to want her close to their home.

If officials seek a new residential treatment program for Justina in Connecticut, that may not be easy either.

Late last summer, another facility in Connecticut, Webster House in New Britain, Conn., which considered accepting Pelletier after discussions with the Department of Children and Families, backed out after her father threatened to sue if the facility took his daughter. Later, Pelletier’s parents softened their view of the Webster House after visiting the place, but in 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 next court date before Judge Johnston is March 17.

This case involves a controversial and growing new term called medical child abuse—used when parents or other caregivers are suspected of seeking unnecessary or even harmful treatments—and exposes challenges that the medical community faces in diagnosing patients who exhibit both troubling physical and psychiatric symptoms.

Justina’s parents have long insisted 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 had been treating her for this illness for about a year, saying she exhibited many of its symptoms though they were still in the midst of determining whether 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 her 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 Department of Children and Families and later a juvenile court judge.

Children’s, 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 she can now move around only in a wheelchair.