Justina Pelletier, the Connecticut teenager at the center of a lengthy custody case, celebrated a landmark birthday over the weekend. But perhaps even more exciting for the now-16-year-old was the surprise moment when she was able to see some of the friends she's missed for more than a year.
Some of the first images and video of Justina to be publicly released since she was taken into custody by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families in February 2013 show the teenager breaking down in tears upon seeing her friends, who shouted "surprise" in a room decorated for the occasion Saturday.
Friends took turns hugging Justina, who was transferred to a Connecticut facility last month, after living more than a year in Massachusetts.
"First time seeing her friends in over 15 months!!!" said the caption of a video posted to a Facebook page for supporters of the teen and her parents.
Watch the surprise moment for yourself in the Facebook post:
Rev. Patrick Mahoney, a spokesman for Lou and Linda Pelletier, was at the Hawaiian-themed party and told TheBlaze the whole day was "so moving."
"To see her hugging people … here are girls that she saw everyday, who she was close to, who she skated with, who she went to school with," Mahoney said. "Of course the focus is on Pelletier family -- and well it should be -- but it also impacted so many other people."
Justina was removed from her parents' custody in 2013 after they were accused of medical child abuse by physicians at Boston Children's Hospital. The Pelletiers said they had been treating Justina for mitochondrial disease at the direction of doctors at Tufts Medical Center, but doctors at Boston Children's disagreed with the diagnosis, saying she had somatoform disorder instead and wanted to change her treatment accordingly. When the Pelletiers said they tried to take her to Tufts at this point, DCF became involved.
Saturday's party included dancing and a photo montage made by Justina's sisters. The slideshow, Mahoney said, "reinforced the wonderful life that Justina had."
Though he called it an "incredibly sweet day," Mahoney said it was "at times an incredibly painful day as well."
Justina at her surprise 16th birthday party, which had a Hawaiian theme. (Image source: Facebook)
"Remember, it was a very wonderful and moving day, but it was a bittersweet day, full of emotional highs and lows. Then, you could see at end of day when Justina had to leave … she was crying. It reinforced fact of how wonderful it was for Justina to see her friends after 15 months, but then the notion that 15 months of her life has been taken from her."
Mahoney added that DCF paid for the party. DCF did not immediately respond to TheBlaze's request for comment.
The Pelletiers on Friday will meet with Tufts to discuss Justina's medical plan. At this point, Mahoney said, "all elements of reunification plan would be in place," leading supporters to hope that DCF could release Justina as early as next week. But Mahoney added that there's concern over when and if custody will be returned to the Pelletiers because no official date has been set.
"The Pelletiers have complied with everything DCF has asked them to do," he said, noting that they've seen Justina everyday and gone to a therapist.
Mahoney said the "one missing ingredient" in the reunification plan laid out by Massachusetts Health and Human Services is that that it doesn't have dates.
"This is very disconcerting for us. Saturday was a step in the right direction, but it was a bittersweet reminder of the life that was taken from Justina and the life that should be immediately given back to her," Mahoney said.
If the Pelletiers are not returned custody of their daughter within the next few weeks, the next date set when they can petition in court is June 20, which Mahoney said they don't want to wait for.
"Our hope is that DCF will see that Pelletiers have complied," he said. "Our hope is after Friday, there's nothing more that needs to be done."
A 52-hour prayer vigil organized by supporters of the Pelletier family starts Wednesday outside DCF offices. A rally was also held Saturday outside the Massachusetts Statehouse for the Pelletier case.