More than a year after a Connecticut couple lost custody of their teenage daughter following a diagnostic dispute between doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital and Tufts Medical Center, a juvenile court judge approved a plan Monday to return the girl’s medical care to a Tufts-led team.
In a closed-door hearing about the case of 15-year-old Justina Pelletier, Juvenile Court Judge Joseph Johnston also lifted a gag order he had imposed on parties to the case last fall, said Chester Tennyson, the attorney for Pelletier’s parents, Linda and Lou Pelletier of West Hartford.
Meanwhile the state Department of Children and Families, which has maintained custody of the girl since February 2013, dropped its contempt-of-court complaint against the father for having spoken publicly about the case in violation of the gag order.
“Now what we’re going to work on is getting this child home,” Tennyson said. “And I think it’s going to happen.”
The issue of Justina Pelletier’s custody is expected to be discussed at the next court hearing, which is scheduled for March 17. In January, the teenager was moved from the locked psychiatric unit of Children’s Hospital to a residential program in Framingham run by the Wayside Youth and Family Support Network. Tennyson said his goal is to see the judge return custody of the girl to her parents.
The case, which was the subject of a two-part series in the Globe in December and has since drawn extensive national media coverage, introduced many people to the controversial issue of medical child abuse, a term child-protection experts use to describe parents accused of pushing for unnecessary and potentially harmful medical interventions.
The battle over Pelletier’s care and custody erupted on Valentine’s Day 2013, when her parents attempted to discharge her from Children’s. Linda Pelletier had taken Justina by ambulance to Children’s a few days earlier, at the suggestion of the girl’s coordinating doctor at Tufts, metabolism chief Mark Korson, who had been treating her for mitochondrial disease, a rare group of disorders affecting energy production in the cells.
Korson had suggested that Justina, who was having trouble eating and walking, go to Children’s so she could be seen by her longtime Tufts gastroenterologist, Alejandro Flores, who had recently moved across town to Children’s. But the girl was not seen by Flores, and instead, a different set of doctors at Children’s quickly concluded that the origin of her problems was mostly psychiatric. The parents, who had tussled with providers in the past, rejected the shift in diagnosis and the Children’s treatment plan and sought to remove Pelletier. That led the Children’s team to file allegations of medical child abuse against them with Massachusetts child-protection officials.
Korson will be a key player on Pelletier’s new medical team, as will other specialists from Tufts, said Julie Jette, a Tufts spokeswoman. However, doctors from other institutions are expected to be on the team, including a neurologist from Boston Medical Center and Flores.
“We’re happy to be helpful, but a lot of things do need to be worked out,” said Jette.
Among those matters is who will pay for Pelletier’s care if she is released from Massachusetts custody.
Pelletier’s parents, who have been restricted by state officials to a one hourlong visit with their daughter each week, argue that her condition has worsened during the year she has been out of their custody, though it has been impossible to get an independent assessment of the girl’s health.