Jul 26, 2014

Will West Hartford's Justina Pelletier Ever Be Released?

Former Boston Children's nurse Kathleen Higgins says that 15-year-old West Hartford girl could remain in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families until she is 18.

Will West Hartford's Justina Pelletier Ever Be Released?

Despite a Jan. 10 ruling suggesting that 15-year-old Justina Pelletier may be leaving Boston Children’s soon, a former nurse of the hospital says that may not be so.

Family and probate court Judge Joseph Johnston ruled on Jan. 10 that Justina Pelletier was to be transferred from Boston Children’s Hospital to another facility, provided that certain conditions were met.

The news was greeted by the Pelletier family with optimism.

But Kathleen Higgins, who for five years worked in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Bader 5 unit - the psychiatric ward where Justina is being held - said that she believes Justina could ultimately be transferred to foster care and held in custody of Massachusetts DCF until her 18th birthday.

In a letter sent to Olga Roche, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, and Massachusetts Gov. Duval Patrick, Higgins warned that the ruling was not the clear-cut victory that the media (including Patch) have reported.

Specifically, Higgins, citing a Jan. 11 Boston Globe article, wrote that the conditions Johnston placed in the ruling have set the Pelletiers up for failure.

“Justina's return to her home state, and to her family, [are] contingent on her parents compliance with a ‘code of behavior’ issued by the court,” Higgins wrote. “One final ‘chance to prove themselves capable of caring for their daughter,’ per this Globe article. Transfer plans were vague.”

Higgins wrote that she believes that DCF will “declare that Lou and Linda Pelletier have continued to exhibit ‘behavior’ harmful to their daughter.”

In addition, Higgins said that it’s likely that no other hospital or facility will take Justina’s transfer because of either liability or the conditions set forth by DCF, via Boston Children’s.

“They’ll say the parents are difficult, they have lawyers and the media are involved,” Higgins said in a telephone interview. “They’ll say the facility doesn’t want to deal with the parents’ bad attitude, the lawyers and the media. That the behavior is interfering and threatening the discharge and care of their daughter. You had your chance, you blew it.”

The end result, Higgins believes, is that Justina will remain in DCF’s care until she is 18.

Higgins added that, since April 2013, she is aware of three other times that Justina was to be transferred from Boston Children’s Hospital to another facility.

None of those transfers ever happened, Higgins said.

“The reports of a victory for the Pelletiers has many concerned about the atmosphere of complacency that has quelled the outrage,” Higgins said. “ A wait-and-see attitude is both foolish and dangerous.”

While not yet a victory, Justina’s mother and father Lou and Linda Pelletier exited Edward W. Brooke Courthouse in Boston on Jan. 10 smiling at the news that Justina could, within a matter of weeks, be transferred from Boston Children’s Hospital to an unspecified transitional facility.

“The proof will be in the pudding in a few weeks,” said Lou Pelletier at the time.

Linda Pelletier added that she is "hopeful."

Justina, who had previously been diagnosed and treated by Tufts Medical Center doctors for the rare genetic disease mitochondrial disorder, has been in the custody of the Massachusetts DCF since February 2013, when she was sent to Boston Children’s Hospital for a bout with the flu.

Doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital reportedly disagreed with Justina’s diagnosis and instead diagnosed Justina with the mental illness somatoform disorder and charged her parents with medical abuse - forcing unnecessary treatments on the girl.

Higgins said that this isn’t the first case in which a hospital and Massachusetts DCF have been involved in terminating parental rights due to a disagreement over a child’s diagnosis.

But Higgins said that she was hopeful that attention drawn to the Pelletiers’ case could lead to a different outcome.

“This is the first case that we’re hearing of and we have an opportunity to change the ending of this story,” she said.

Boston Children’s, for its part, is under a gag order, but issued the following statement Friday: "The hospital does not keep patients in its care against the direction of the custodial guardian.”

The Boston Globe, citing two unnamed sources, reported that lawyers for the DCF “requested that the judge extend the state’s custody of Justina in such a way that her parents could not challenge it for at least six months. But the judge reportedly denied that request, choosing instead to maintain temporary custody with the state.”

Another hearing on the matter is scheduled for Feb. 4.

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