A Boston judge is expected to decide Friday whether a 15-year-old West Hartford girl will go home with her family or remain in Massachusetts custody.
Fox CT broke the story of Justina Pelletier’s stay in Boston Children’s Hospital last month.
Since then, the teen’s family has continued to attend custody hearings in at the Edward Brooke Courthouse in Boston as they have been since February 2013.
The last of the custody hearings was on Dec. 12, but the judge did not issue a final ruling.
Sources say Judge Joseph Johnston will make his final decision on Friday morning (Dec. 20).
Justina’s story is complex.
From displaying creative moves on the ice as a skater as recently as December 2012, to being wheelchair-bound just two months later, even friends of Justina can’t believe what’s happened.
“It’s unexplainable,” one friend remarked in July.
Others are awaiting her return to skating.
“I can’t wait until she can get back on the ice,” a friend said.
Some have talked to her by phone while she has been stuck in the hospital.
“I’ve been doing everything I can for Justina. It’s just really sad,” a friend said.
For years Justina had been diagnosed mitochondrial disease, a relatively newly discovered disease, causing muscle pain and weakness.
But her condition was made worse when she caught the flu in February.
So at the recommendation of her doctor at Tufts Medical Center, Mark Korson, she was admitted to Boston Children’s Hospital to see her gastro-intestinal specialist, Dr. Alex Flores, who had transferred from Tufts to BCH.
Yet almost immediately after admission, a different set of doctors came in with a different diagnosis, saying Justina had somatoform disorder, a mental problem, not mitochondrial disease.
When her parents, Lou and Linda, disagreed with the diagnosis and asked to discharge their daughter, security blocked the hospital doors.
Lou even called 911 and Boston Police showed up. But it was too late.
“They came in, and they said we cannot take Justina out of the hospital. They called DCF, and they filed a 51A,” says Linda Pelletier.
The 51A form allowed DCF to get custody of Justina.
Internal hospital documents obtained by Fox CT revealed that the hospital accused the Pelletiers of medical child abuse.
Ten months later, Justina is still hospitalized and all along her parents have been fighting for her custody in a Massachusetts courtroom.
Perhaps most troubling is that our continuing investigation has shown the Pelletiers aren’t alone.
We found that Massachusetts mother Jessica Hilliard’s son, Gabriel, also has been diagnosed with mitochondrial disease and that in 2011, his parents were also accused of medical child abuse by Boston Children’s Hospital.
“My husband and I knew what was happening. As soon as we understood that child protection was getting involved, we immediately understood that they were going to try to take custody from us because that was their pattern. By this point I had met several families who had gone through this at Boston Children’s,” says Hilliard.
DCF later dismissed allegations against Hilliard.
But other families like hers have been vocal at rallies outside the courthouse during Justina’s custody hearings.
Hilliard’s attorney, Jim Ianiri, based in Norwell, agreed to discuss the Pelletiers’ case, which he says is one of many.
“The Pelletier case certainly is the most high profile, but I’ve gone through this already and I know exactly what goes on and how difficult it is to go against one of the most renowned hospitals in the world — not to mention the department of children and families with all its power and resources,” says Ianiri.
They are power and resources that have remained largely a mystery because the hospital has declined to comment on Justina’s case, and custody Judge Joseph Johnston issued a gag order in November.
They might remain a mystery unless you talk to the right people – insiders – like Katie Higgins.
“It looks to me like they’re making the cases fit their agenda,” she says.
Fox CT spoke exclusively with Higgins, a registered nurse who worked at Boston Children’s Hospital from 2005 to 2010.
She says she resigned after blowing the whistle on what she says was inappropriate conduct on the psychiatric floor, which is called “Bader 5.”
“What I saw was a strong motivation by these very young clinicians to be in total control of a treatment of a child. Once they’re in DCF custody, they no longer have the difficulty of getting the parents on board,” says Higgins.
We reached out to Boston Children’s Hospital long before the judge issued a gag order.
The hospital declined to offer comment on Justina’s case then, and after the gag order was issued, as well.
Higgins says nobody would have known about the systemic problem, were it not for the press.
“The media coverage that I’ve seen so far, and you broke the story, thank goodness, that is so important is that people are talking about this and doing some research and understanding and to realize – we have to be more involved with the trends in our society especially when they affect children”, says Higgins.
Barry Pollack, a former federal prosecutor and board member for “The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children” helped win a similar custody case for one of his clients.
Now he’s filing a civil suit against Boston Children’s Hospital on behalf of that client, a Swiss woman named Claudia Felder.
Pollack says the client’s 14-year-old daughter was kept in Boston Children’s Hospital against her will and her mother’s will for six weeks.
“What’s interesting here being in Boston, the calls I’m getting, they’re not bringing up, ‘I’m having a problem with Beth Israel, not having a problem with Brigham.’ They’re all calling me saying, it’s Children’s Hospital,” says Pollack.
He also weighed in on Justina’s case, which is currently playing out.
“I feel empathy toward Judge Johnston because a judge in that position has DCF coming to him and leading doctors, or people you’d think are leading doctors at Children’s Hospital. What choice do you have but to at least give them the benefit of the doubt for a while? It’s been 9 months as I understand it, and Justina’s condition has been deteriorating. So enough is enough.”
Justina’s friends also said enough is enough when they made their video supporting her back in July.
At the time, their beloved friend had been gone for about five months.
Dec. 14 marked 10 months since her parents lost custody.
On the eve of the custody hearing, just like in July, Justina’s friends aren’t concerned with how or why this happened.
There’s just one thing they want.
“I really wish that she could just come home.”