The juvenile court judge in the long-running custody case of Justina Pelletier said in court Monday that he will rule by the end of the week on a motion to return the girl home.
The motion presented by the court-appointed lawyer for Justina 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. Judge Joseph Johnston could revoke the parents’ custody if they violate the terms of the agreement, which includes ensuring that Justina receives proper medical care and schooling.
But lawyers for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, which has held legal custody of Justina for more than a year following a diagnostic dispute at Boston Children’s Hospital, opposed the plan, and urged the judge to reject it.
The latest drama in Boston’s Edward Brooke Courthouse mostly involved legal maneuvering.
Although Nancy Hathaway, representing Justina, and the parents’ longstanding lawyers, Chester and Christine Tennyson, jointly filed the motion to return conditional custody to the parents, Hathaway strongly opposed the parents’ move to bring in a new, out-of-state lawyer to take the lead in their case.
That lawyer, Mathew Staver, is a former pastor who runs the Florida-based Liberty Counsel and serves as dean of Liberty University School of Law. He appeared in court Monday asking to be admitted to the case to represent the parents.
The Pelletiers’ enlistment of Staver accelerates a strategy to try to draw more national attention to their case. Activists from numerous conservative, Christian, and parents’ rights groups have gotten involved, with representatives descending on Boston from New York, Washington D.C., and Denver to fill the benches outside the courtroom Monday.
The judge said he would also decide by week’s end whether to admit Staver to the case, but he did accept the withdrawal from the case of the Tennysons as lawyers for Linda and Lou Pelletier. Chester Tennyson said in an interview that they chose to leave because of “philosophical differences” with Staver. Nonetheless, he said he still firmly believes that Justina should be returned to her parents. “She needs to go home,” he said.
Salem lawyer Philip Moran said he entered court Monday intending to support Staver’s addition as local counsel. But Moran was surprised to walk out of the courthouse as the parents’ only counsel on record. Moran, whose license was suspended for two months by the state Board of Bar Overseers in 2011, is a prominent advocate in Catholic legal issues.
Lou Pelletier was furious with the possible rejection of Staver’s involvement. After the hour-plus hearing ended, Lou Pelletier walked out of Courtroom 9 and yelled an expletive.
In an interview later, he said, “There were too many side shows. Nothing got resolved.”
The state took emergency custody of Justina 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.
Tufts doctors had been treating Justina for mitochondrial disease, a group of rare genetic disorders affecting cellular energy production, but physicians at Children’s said her symptoms were largely psychiatric in origin. The girl’s parents rejected the new diagnosis, and when they tried to move Justina back to Tufts, the Children’s team notified the state that it suspected the parents of medical child abuse. Justina remained at Children’s for almost a year, most of the time in a locked psychiatric ward, as the case gained national attention. In late January, she was moved to a residential facility in Framingham, though she continues to be treated by Boston Children’s doctors on an outpatient basis.
The Pelletiers signed an agreement Monday, characterized by several parties as a “code of conduct,” to address a requirement before the agreed-upon transfer of Justina’s care from Boston Children’s Hospital providers to a team led by Tufts. The agreement addresses several matters including provisions for payment and expectations for behavior by parents and providers.
In addition to the custody decision, one of the biggest outstanding issues involves the role of Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families. For some time, the judge and other Massachusetts officials have tried without success to get their counterparts in Connecticut to step up their involvement because Justina is a Connecticut resident. Johnston has no oversight of the Connecticut agency.
The agency late last year substantiated a complaint of medical neglect against Lou and Linda Pelletier, so it now has an open case involving the parents. Although the two sides dispute the significance of that complaint, it would appear to mean that, if Justina were returned to her home, Connecticut officials would get involved to some degree. Gary Kleeblatt, a spokesman for Connecticut DCF, declined to comment.
The Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Washington-based Christian Defense Coalition and an advocate for the Pelletier parents, said he has been encouraging supporters to flood Connecticut lawmakers and officials with calls and e-mails, urging that Connecticut DCF not get involved.
He said that he and Staver have advised the parents not to accept anything less than the return of full legal and physical custody of Justina. “We want DCF out,” Staver said.
However, William Cusick, the investigator that the judge appointed to advise him, has, according to three people briefed on the case, raised new concerns about returning Justina directly to her parents’ home and custody. Mahoney said he heard that among the concerns was the parents’ effort to seek national media coverage, which Mahoney has helped orchestrate. (The nationally syndicated “Dr Phil” show broadcast a lengthy interview with Lou Pelletier on Monday.)
But Mahoney countered, “If Justina is returned home, all the media attention will go away.”