Outside a youth home in Framingham, Mass., between 50 and 80 people gathered peacefully in below freezing temperatures and prayed for a Connecticut teen at the center of a high-profile custody battle.
The vigil held Saturday at Wayside Youth and Family Support Network was for Justina Pelletier, who has been in state care against her parents wishes for more than a year after a disagreement over a medical diagnosis.
“We prayed for Justina, prayed for the family, prayed for the lawmakers to step up and to do this. We prayed for DCF workers, that God would touch their hearts,” Keith Mason, president of the pro-life human rights’ group Personhood USA, which co-organized the event along with Rev. Patrick Mahoney, told TheBlaze. “It was a time for prayer and was somber. We saw a lot of committed people.”
Among them were state lawmakers who plan to introduce a resolution to “free Justina” in next legislative session scheduled for March 5 and other parents who Mason said have been in similar situations with DCF. Linda and Lou Pelletier, Justina’s parents, were not present at the vigil.
“They just weren’t able to emotionally. They were just distraught,” Mason said. “We’re seeing them coming to an end emotionally.”
Lou and Linda Pelletier of West Hartford, Conn., have been trying to regain custody of Justina from the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families since Feb. 14, 2013, after they were accused of medical child abuse.
The family of the 15-year-old girl say they brought her to Boston Children’s Hospital last year at the recommendation of a Connecticut hospital to see a gastrointestinal specialist. Justina Pelletier had been diagnosed with mitochondrial disease, a disease where the mitochondria of a person’s cells do not function properly, resulting in various symptoms including pain and GI issues in Justina’s case.
However, when at Boston Children’s Hospital, Justina’s parents said doctors disagreed with this diagnosis, which was previously established by a doctor at Tufts Medical Center, and said Justina’s symptoms instead were originating from a psychological condition called somatoform disorder.
When the Pelletiers disagreed with the hospital’s plan for Justina’s care, which they said would take her off her mitochondrial disease treatments, they tried to have her discharged to be taken to Tufts but were instead met with accusations that they were over-medicalizing their daughter and DCF stepped in.
Since then, the Pelletiers, recently joined by patients’ rights advocates and some state legislators, have been trying to get custody back.
On Friday, DCF broke its silence in the case and released a statement on the case.
“Our primary goal has always been the health and well-being of Justina,” DCF spokesman Alec Loftus said in an emailed. “We want the parents to be able to work with the providers and courts to ultimately move Justina back to her home state of Connecticut. That is the objective, and is consistent with our previous efforts to find an appropriate placement near her home. A medical team has been identified at Tufts, the family’s provider of choice, with the clinical expertise to care for Justina.”
While Boston Children’s Hospital in a statement earlier this week said it is “pleased with the progress our patient made when she was at Boston Children’s and with her continued progress,” Justina’s parents have said that they think her condition, without mitochondrial disease treatments, is worsening to the point where some issues could be irreversible.
Shortly after DCF released this statement, the Pelletiers were denied their regularly scheduled, one-hour meeting with Justina Friday because an unsolicited media truck was outside the office. Loftus confirmed this with TheBlaze in an email but said the visit was rescheduled for later in the day.
From Mason’s perspective, the decision to reschedule the visit came only after a press conference was organized by advocacy groups regarding the initial cancellation.
“It’s far easier for us to look at the family and say there’s got to be something else here … than what the alternative is and that would be that it’s a broken system that rips a child from their parents,” Mason said. “But that’s what we’ve come to realize.”
Mason continued that his organization has had investigators look into the Pelletier’s case and has spoken with legal advisors, but they are not seeing problems with the family.
“The reason why this is happening, we believe, is that there’s serious corruption in a seriously broken system,” he said.
The next court hearing in this case is scheduled for March 17.