Lawyers for Justina Pelletier family blast Massachusetts officials in letter

Lawyers for the family of a 15-year-old girl at the center of a custody battle triggered by differing diagnoses by two Massachusetts hospitals roundly criticized state officials in a letter Thursday for releasing their "reunification" plan to the media prior to consulting the family on the matter.

The letter, addressed to Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services John Polanowicz on behalf of Lou and Linda Pelletier, also accuses Polanowicz of making inaccurate statements in regard to the case of their daughter, Justina.

"The Pelletier family was extremely disheartened to find that the draft May 5, 2014 Polanowicz Plan for returning Justina was released to media prior to the Pelletiers' meeting with you," attorneys for the family wrote in the letter. "Whenever there is a minor in custody of the State, there are confidentiality concerns.

"Since you are the representative of the Commonwealth in these negotiations, you are as much bound by confidentiality as the Pelletier family. The same Massachusetts laws against disclosure of the court proceedings concerning a minor also apply to your office, as well as the family. It was wrong to put out the Plan prior to any consultation with the family or the family's attorney."

Lawyers Mathew Staver and Philip Moran also challenged Polanowicz on statements in his May 5 letter that said, "DCF (Department of Children and Families) at this time retains custody of Justina" and "only the Juvenile Court has the authority to determine when and if custody should be returned."

The Pelletier attorneys called Polanowicz's claim "inaccurate," saying, "DCF’s own regulations for case closure make it abundantly clear that it is within DCF's power and prerogative to end this situation immediately.

"If DCF walked into court tomorrow morning and informed the court that DCF no longer objected to a return of Justina to her loving parents in Connecticut, this case would be closed within hours," the Pelletiers' letter stated.

In a letter to Massachusetts lawmakers, Polanowicz announced a "reunification" plan on Monday that calls for Justina to be transferred to a facility in Thompson, Conn., as the first step in a process that could eventually return her to the custody of her parents. A judge will make the final decision to return Justina to her family.

The Connecticut facility "will provide services to Justina with the ultimate goal of her returning home as soon as possible," wrote Polanowicz.

He also wrote that the family "must follow through with the Tufts Medical Center care plan."

The announcement, however, has infuriated the girl's parents, who claim the move is "not at all meant as a step toward regaining custody" and called it "barbaric."

"They’re just shipping her off to another psychiatric facility," Lou Pelletier told Tuesday. "It’s disgusting."

"They’re totally ignoring her physical needs," he said, citing a heart condition the girl suffers from that Pelletier claims has gone untreated since the teen was transferred to Boston Children's Hospital last year.

In the letter responding to Polanowicz' plan, attorneys for the Pelletiers wrote that such a condition for reunification "is perhaps the most concerning, because the Pelletiers have no control over Justina's medical care.

"They have no say in her care whatsoever, nor do they have information about her current condition from which to make an informed decision. They have consistently been denied any information about Justina's medical condition by DCF. All information about Justina's condition has come through Justina or through some other source.

Tufts Medical Center had treated Justina for mitochondrial disease, a disorder that affects cellular energy production. But Boston Children's Hospital later diagnosed her problems as psychiatric.

The court in March ordered the teen placed in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.

Justina will be transferred to the JRI Susan Wayne Center for Excellence in Thompson.

In March, Massachusetts juvenile court Judge Joseph Johnston issued a four-page ruling blasting Pelletier’s parents for being verbally abusive and complicating efforts to bring the family together. The Pelletiers, meanwhile, have claimed the Bay State bureaucracy has been aligned against the family from the beginning.

The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families took emergency custody of Justina on Valentine’s Day 2013 after doctors at Tufts Medical Center, which had been treating her for a rare condition, and doctors as Boston Children’s Hospital, clashed over the cause of her medical problems, which included difficulty eating and walking.

At Tufts, Justina had been treated for mitochondrial disease, a group of rare genetic disorders affecting cellular energy production. When Justina began experiencing some gastrointestinal problems, the Tufts doctor treating her, Dr. Mark Korson, wanted the girl to visit Dr. Alejandro Flores at Boston Children's Hospital, according to the family's attorney, Phil Moran. Flores had treated Justina in the past, Moran said, and Korson thought it beneficial for the teen to see a gastroenterologist.

What happened next was a "tragic nightmare" for Justina, according to her father.

Justina was taken by ambulance to Boston Children's Hospital because she was in a wheelchair at the time and a heavy snowstorm was blanketing the region. Because she arrived by ambulance, she was taken directly into the hospital's emergency room, where a "resident refused to send her to Dr. Flores" and, "declared this was his case," according to Moran. He said the unnamed resident then called upon a psychologist who diagnosed Justina with somatoform disorder -- a mental condition in which a patient experiences symptoms that are real but have no physical or biological explanation. Justina was diagnosed with the disorder "within 25 minutes," Moran claims.

The Pelletier family rejected the new psychiatric diagnosis and wanted to bring Justina back to Tufts, Moran said. He claims the hospital tried to force the girl's parents to sign papers preventing them from seeking another opinion.

After tempers flared between the Pelletiers and staff at Boston Children's, the hospital notified the state that it suspected the parents of medical child abuse.

The girl was kept at Boston Children’s psychiatric ward for nearly a year, but was then slated to be transferred to another state facility. Johnston said the family, which vented its anger in various media interviews, hampered efforts to have her placed as near them as possible. She is currently being held at the Wayside Youth and Family Support Network facility in Framingham, Mass.

Pelletier has claimed Johnson ignored the testimony of his daughter's original doctors, who stand by the diagnosis of mitochondrial disease. In the more than a year since the ordeal began, the Pelletiers have only been allowed hourly visits each week with their daughter, whose condition, they say, has deteriorated. She has not attended school or church since the family lost custody of her, he said.