If there were ever a case that should defy easy assumptions, it’s that of 15-year-old Justina Pelletier. The teenager was taken from her parents by the Department of Children and Families last year, after Children’s Hospital raised concerns that she had suffered medical child abuse. That’s a serious but little-understood concept that involves parents or guardians acting against the best interests of a minor in a medical setting — for instance, by withholding needed care or insisting on unnecessary treatments. Linda and Lou Pelletier reject that conclusion, and have tried repeatedly to reclaim custody of their daughter, who was transferred to a foster care program by a juvenile judge on Monday. There are no obvious villains in the case, and each party seems to be acting in what it sincerely believes to be the teen’s interests.
Unfortunately, Pelletier’s story seems destined for the cable-news hothouse, where every story must have villains and where nuance is an alien concept. Christian groups hot for violations of parental rights have also taken up Linda and Lou Pelletier’s cause, and both have put Massachusetts officials in their crosshairs. Fox News, when it reported the news this week that Justina had been moved to foster care, reported that she’d been “sentenced” to foster care.
The Pelletier case has exposed serious shortcomings, first and foremost DCF’s lack of sufficient expertise to evaluate complex medical situations. But the outside groups siding with the parents, which included protesters outside the courthouse on Monday, risk turning the case into a circus. State officials and courts weighing Justina’s future need to tune out such distractions and focus on doing what’s right for her.