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State asks judge to return Justina Pelletier to her parents

The state Department of Children and Families has made a dramatic change in the 16-month saga involving Connecticut teenager Justina Pelletier, asking a juvenile court judge to return the girl to her parents’ custody.

The development came after DCF removed its longstanding opposition to Justina’s going home to her parents, saying that Lou and Linda Pelletier, who have been fighting for the girl’s return, have met the conditions asked of them. Now, all parties will be looking to see if the judge agrees.

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Judge Joseph Johnston had given the state permanent custody of Justina in March, after a highly publicized battle involving dueling diagnoses from doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital and Tufts Medical Center and allegations of medical child abuse leveled against her parents.

In his March ruling, Johnston had sharp words for the Pelletiers, faulting them for behavior he contended had scuttled previous attempts at compromise.

DCF filed its request to the judge late Friday for Justina to go back to her parents’ care, and attorneys for the Pelletiers, from West Hartford, Conn., were notified about it on Monday.

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The Justina case, the subject of a two-part Globe series in December, has drawn international attention and highlighted the murky line between psychiatric and biological illness and the fraught terrain of medical child abuse accusations.

In recent months, it has increasingly taken on a political dimension. Governor Deval Patrick’s top health official, Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz, has played an unusually active role in personally trying to broker a resolution.

A family reunification plan that Polanowicz described in a May 5 letter listed four conditions Justina’s parents would have to meet for DCF to support their regaining custody, including that they follow through on Tufts Medical Center’s care plan for Justina and participate in family therapy.

In the state’s new court filing, general counsel Andrew Rome wrote that the parents had met their obligation to present “sufficient evidence of a material change in circumstances.”

A spokesman for Polanowicz said in a statement that DCF had filed papers in court “to support our shared goal of bringing Justina home.”

Based on the judge’s March ruling, the parents would not be able to petition for reconsideration until June 20, at the earliest. But Philip Moran, the Salem attorney representing Justina’s parents, said he planned to file a motion Tuesday requesting that the judge return custody without a hearing. The DCF filing also suggested that a hearing might not be necessary.

In the ruling in March, the judge also criticized the Connecticut Department of Children and Families for failing to step up its involvement in a knotty case involving a resident of that state.

If Judge Johnston agrees to return custody to Justina’s parents, that will probably put the responsibility for monitoring the case in Connecticut’s lap. Not only is Justina a resident of Connecticut, but the child welfare agency in that state had previously substantiated a claim of child neglect (or medical child abuse) against the parents, which then created an “open” case with some ongoing oversight of the family.

“Massachusetts authorities believe that since there is an open protective case in Connecticut, then Connecticut will be in more of a position to monitor Justina’s progress if Massachusetts is out of the loop,” said an official who has been involved in the case but requested anonymity because of juvenile court restrictions.

The Commonwealth had taken the lead in the Justina case — and borne the cost of her care — because she had been a patient at Boston Children’s Hospital in February 2013 when hospital representatives there accused the parents of medical child abuse.

Although a specialist at Tufts had previously given Justina a working diagnosis of mitochondrial disease, a group of rare genetic disorders that affect how cells produce energy, the team at Children’s concluded that her problems were mostly psychiatric. When the Children’s team moved to change Justina’s treatment plan, her parents strongly objected, sending the case to juvenile court.

The judge awarded the state temporary custody of Justina in February 2013, and she spent much of that year in the locked psychiatric ward of Boston Children’s. She was later moved to a residential facility in Framingham.

For much of the last month, she has been living at the JRI Susan Wayne Center for Excellence, a residential facility in Thompson, Conn., about 90 minutes from her family’s home. Justina’s mother and maternal grandmother have been living in a hotel so they can visit her daily, Lou Pelletier said. In late May, family and friends threw Justina a surprise sweet 16 birthday party, crowding into her room.

The family released a video clip on Monday of Justina appealing directly to Judge Johnston to send her home.

“When she’s officially released,” her father said, “the healing can begin. Until then, we’re going to keep full pressure on the judge and the state of Massachusetts.”

Linda and Lou Pelletier with daughter Justina last year.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Linda and Lou Pelletier with daughter Justina last year.

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