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Judge delays Justina Pelletier ruling until Tuesday

Linda Pelletier with her daughter Justina.

Pelletier Family

Linda Pelletier with her daughter, Justina.

The juvenile court judge in the long-running Justina Pelletier custody case delayed issuing a ruling Friday on a motion to return the teenager to her Connecticut home.

A lawyer for the girl’s parents and a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, which has had legal custody of Pelletier for more than a year, said the judge sent word that he will instead notify the parties of his decision by the end of the day on Tuesday.

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Judge Joseph Johnston had pledged during a hearing Monday to rule by the end of the week, and there was no explanation provided for the delay.

The motion, presented by the 15-year-old’s court-
appointed lawyer and the lawyers for her parents, Linda and Lou Pelletier of West Hartford, Conn., calls for the parents to be awarded “conditional custody” of their 15-year-old daughter. Johnston would be able to revoke the parents’ custody if they violate the terms of the agreement, which includes ensuring that Justina receives proper medical care and schooling.

The Department of Children and Families took emergency custody of the teen on Valentine’s Day 2013 after a diagnostic dispute arose between doctors at Tufts Medical Center and Boston Children’s Hospital over the causes of her medical problems, including difficulty eating and walking.

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Tufts doctors had been treating Pelletier for mitochondrial disease, a group of rare genetic disorders affecting cellular energy production, but physicians at Children’s concluded that her symptoms were largely psychiatric in origin. Her parents rejected the new diagnosis, and when they tried to move the girl back to Tufts, the Children’s team notified the state that it suspected the parents of medical child abuse.

Pelletier remained at Children’s for almost a year, most of the time in a locked psychiatric ward, and meanwhile the case gained national attention.

In late January, she was moved to a residential facility in Framingham, Wayside Youth and Family Support Network, though she continues to be treated by Children’s doctors on an outpatient basis. The parties in the case finalized a plan this week to move her care to a team led by physicians at Tufts.

“We are pleased with the progress Justina has made at Wayside as we continue to pursue a path for her to return home to Connecticut,” Mary-Leah Assad, the new deputy chief of staff for the Massachusetts child-welfare agency, said in a statement.

She said Massachusetts officials are working with their counterparts in Connecticut “to identify appropriate providers for Justina so she can receive the services she needs close to her family and support networks. The ultimate goal is for Justina to return to her home, which is dependent on her parents working with the providers, the courts, and the state of Connecticut to come to resolution.”

In addition to ruling on the motion to have Justina’s custody returned conditionally to her parents, Johnston is also expected to rule on a request to have an out-of-state lawyer, Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel in Florida, join the case as counsel for the parents, working with Salem lawyer Philip Moran.

“In all my years in practice, I have never seen a more barbaric overreach by a state agency,” Staver said in a statement. “Judge Johnston needs to return Justina to her family that loves her.”

In court Monday, Justina’s court-appointed lawyer strongly objected to having Staver join the parents’ legal team.

Neil Swidey can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.
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