After 16-month battle, Justina Pelletier returns home
Father vows to continue fight for family rights
WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — When Justina Pelletier arrived home early Wednesday afternoon in the passenger seat of her mother's sport utility vehicle, her father, Lou, made a cradle with his arms and carried her through the front yard.
The 16-year-old girl with the shiny sunglasses and a bow in her hair cannot walk on her own anymore. But on Wednesday, for her family, crossing the threshold of her house in any fashion was a big enough step.
For the first time in 16 months, Justina would sleep in her own bed. She was once again her parent's daughter not just by blood, but by law.
"She wants a hamburger on the grill, and she wants to sit down and lie on the couch and watch a movie with the family," said Justina's mother, Linda.
Wednesday marked the end of a protracted legal battle pitting Boston Children's Hospital and the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families against the Pelletier family. The case brought national attention to the issues of parental rights and a controversial new medical syndrome known as medical child abuse.
In February 2013, Linda Pelletier brought her daughter, whom doctors at Tufts Medical Center had previously diagnosed with a rare illness called mitochondrial disease, to Boston Children's. Justina was not eating much and had been struggling to walk.
Doctors at Children's soon reversed the earlier diagnosis, saying Justina's condition was not physical but psychiatric.
Officials at Children's reported suspicions of medical child abuse to the Department of Children and Families. The state took emergency custody of Justina.
Three months ago, Joseph Johnston, a Massachusetts juvenile court judge, gave the state permanent custody of Justina. On Tuesday, he reversed his ruling, saying the Pelletiers had made significant progress and their daughter could return home.
Linda Pelletier and Justina's sister, Jennifer, went to pick up Justina early Wednesday from the JRI Susan Wayne Center for Excellence in Thompson, Conn., where she had been sent so she could rehabilitate closer to home.
Justina rode home with a pink blanket and polka-dotted pillow in her mother's car. Before she left Thompson, she smiled and waved, saying it was awesome to see her parents again.
The first thing Justina planned to focus on when she got home, she said, was "my family."
Jennifer said Justina would probably have to catch up on television shows, too, including her favorite: "Dance Moms."
After Justina had returned, Lou Pelletier reflected on the raft of ice skating medals, more than he can count, that reside in his daughter's room.
"She was a very active girl, and now as you saw me picking her up, she's going to have a long way to go before she's ice skating again," he said. "But you know what? She will ice skate again."
The Pelletiers said they are focused on helping Justina regain her health.
Linda Pelletier said she plans to enroll her daughter in pool therapy. "There's going to be a lot of rehabbing with her, and hopefully she can walk again," Linda said.
Jennifer Pelletier said she would like to teach her sister to skate again, but now Justina has no muscle strength and is "like a rag doll."
"This should have never happened to my little sister; this should never happen ever again to any child in this situation," Jennifer said, hinting at the family's next fight.
The Pelletiers said they intend to press their argument that hospitals are too eager to accuse families of medical child abuse without sufficient reason, seizing children from their mothers and fathers.
Linda and Lou Pelletier remain adamant Justina's ailments have always been physical, not psychiatric. They said she regressed when doctors at Boston Children's Hospital stopped treating her for mitochondrial disease.
Lou Pelletier said he "will not stop until there is a Justina's Law."
"Ultimately, anybody who was involved in Justina's deconditioning, torture, abuse, needs to be held accountable," he said.
At first, he said, he thought his family was alone in their fight. But in the last year, they have learned of a number of parents who shared their experience. "Justina's story is just the tip of the iceberg," Lou Pelletier said.
Rest and personal time are in order first, he said. Lou plans to get the family pool ready and find Red Sox tickets for his daughter.
Inside the family's split-level suburban home on Wednesday, Justina curled up on a black leather couch with her three sisters and watched "Pretty Little Liars" on the family room TV. One of her dogs, Roxie, a doting German Shepherd, gave her a slobbering lick on the lips.
Lou Pelletier called the last 16 months a "long ordeal."
“If there is a kid that can turn it around,” Lou said, “it’s Justina Pelletier.”