In late February 2014, almost all the residents of New England were trapped in their homes after weeks of unending snow. At the same time, teenaged Justina Pelletier was also trapped. Unlike the rest of us in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the promise of a spring thaw would not set her free. It would take a grassroots army, fueled by injustice, to #FreeJustina from the prison she was put in by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families and Boston Children’s Hospital. That army was ultimately successful, and Justina was reunited with her parents.
Justina Pelletier’s plight first became public with an article in the Boston Globe on December 15, 2013. It went unnoticed by a lot of people in the Commonwealth. The Globe laid out the basic facts of the case.
In February 2013, Linda and Lou Pelletier had their daughter Justina, then 14, transported in an ambulance to Boston’s Tufts Medical Center from their home in Connecticut. Upon arrival, they learned that Justina’s gastroenterologist, one of a team of doctors who was treating her mitochondrial disease, had transferred to Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH). Justina’s primary specialist at Tufts strongly urged the Pelletiers to transfer Justina to BCH to see that gastroenterologist. It was a decision that changed their lives forever.
When the Pelletiers arrived at BCH, a series of events unfolded that began a 16-month ordeal that no family should ever have to go through. Rather than seeing Justina’s gastroenterologist, the Pelletiers were confronted by a team of doctors at BCH who decided that the girl did not have mitochondrial disease, that her symptoms were a psychiatric disorder known as somatoform disorder, and that the underlying cause of her symptoms was all in her head. Pelletier, just weeks earlier, had been an active 14-year-old and was now dealing with crippling pain. But in their minds, she was not suffering from mitochondrial disease but was instead a psychiatric patient.
When Justina’s parents strongly objected to this new course of treatment and demanded that she see her gastroenterologist, BCH sprang into even more severe action. In conjunction with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF), BCH in effect stole Justina from her parents and were made the sole arbiters of her care plan. Justina’s months of captivity had begun.
For three months after that initial Globe article, not many people noticed the Pelletiers’ fight. Nor had they noticed the fights of numerous other families who had their lives torn apart by BCH and DCF over disagreements over treatment plans for children. A major threat to parental rights was happening right under our noses, and most of us didn’t even notice.
That all changed in February 2014, when Mr. Pelletier decided to violate a judicial gag order and appear with Megyn Kelly to tell his harrowing story. Shortly after, Glenn Beck and Boston talk radio personalities Jeffrey Kuhner and Michael Graham became advocates for the Pelletiers. Within months, Justina would once again be at home. At that same time, as a blogger focused on Massachusetts, I became involved as well.
Here we had a story of a powerful government agency in effect stealing a teenager from her parents because those parents wanted her to be treated for a disease a team of doctors had diagnosed her with, against the wishes of a rival team of doctors. Justina spent 16 months in captivity away from her parents. She missed two Mother’s Days, two Father’s Days, two Easters, and one Christmas with her family. As punishment for taking the case public, the Pelletiers were denied visitation with Justina on some of those days.
Two conservative members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, James Lyons, R-Andover, and Marc Lombardo, R-Billerica, got involved in the battle to see Justina freed. The pair were relentless in advocating for Justina. They led the fight against the Deval Patrick administration both in public and behind the scenes to ensure that not only would Justina be freed, but the entire system by which parents were stripped of their rights would be changed.
In early March 2014, I sat down with Lyons to get an update on the case. Here is that podcast.
Over the next few months, the fight to #FreeJustina also became a crusade for hundreds of conservative activists in the Commonwealth, myself included. I covered developments in the case and the actions of Lyons and Lombardo regularly at Red Mass Group. At certain points, that coverage would shake me to my core. During a debate on a budget amendment that Lyons and Lombardo introduced to free Justina, another Republican representative repeated, on the floor of the House chamber, unsubstantiated accusations of abuse against Mr. Pelletier. I was sitting next to Justina’s sister in that chamber when Sheila Harrington, R-Groton, repeated those accusations.
It was the work behind the scenes by Lyons and Lombardo that had the greatest effect. The pair convinced the Patrick administration that injustice had been done. Even as court decisions were going against the Pelletiers, Lyons and Lombardo worked with the administration to come to an agreement whereby Justina would be returned to her family. They were successful, 16 months after the ordeal began. Justina was home with her parents and once again being treated for mitochondrial disease.
The Pelletiers have continued to tell their story to raise awareness of medical kidnappings. They have also filed suit against BCH. This month, “Michelle Malkin Investigates” has made the Pelletiers’ fight the focus of a two-part series on medical kidnapping.
Medical kidnapping exists. Before the Pelletier case, I would have had trouble believing it. The award-winning hospital had saved my close family member’s life. That it would also conspire with the government to take a child away from her parents seemed like a dystopian fairy tale. It isn’t. Discovering that nightmare is true will shake you to your core.
Editor’s note: Representative James Lyons’ election committee was a client of Rob Eno’s from 2012 to early 2014. Eno provided graphic design and printing services to Lyons’ campaign. Eno also owned and operated Red Mass Group from 2009 until 2015.
Robert Eno is the director of research for Conservative Review. He is a conservative from deep blue Massachusetts but now lives in Greenville, SC.