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Justina Pelletier is finally released. Shows the power of citizen outrage against government force. But is this nightmare our future? Can we stop it?
POSTED June 18, 2014
After a dreadful 16-month captivity by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF), which has generated considerable national (and international) outrage across the political spectrum,Justina Pelletier has finally been freed to go home.
On Friday, June 6, the DCF suddenly reversed its position and filed a formal request for the court to allow them to release Justina -– after continuously filing requests and taking legal action to block her release. On Tuesday, June 17, Juvenile Court Judge Joseph Johnston granted her release. On Wednesday, she was officially freed!
A hospital visit turns into a 16-month nightmare
Justina, a 16-year-old girl from West Hartford, CT, was being treated for a rare genetic disorder last year at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
In February, 2013, she was brought to Boston Children’s Hospital for an examination because one of her Tufts doctors had recently moved there. But during that visit, her former Tufts doctor did not examine her. Instead, other doctors at Boston Children's Hospital in Boston examined her and decided that she had a mental disorder instead of what her own doctors had been treating!
Her parents and the Tufts doctors strongly disagreed. So Children's Hospital called the DCF and insisted the state agency intervene. DCF immediately took Justina into “emergency” state custody. The next day, Judge Johnston hastily ruled in favor of DCF and made it official. Justina was subsequently put in a psychiatric ward at Boston Children’s Hospital, under guard, where she languished for nearly a year.
During that time her parents were allowed to see Justina for only an hour each week, in the presence of State Police, and were not allowed to talk to her new doctor, according to her father. She did not get proper medical treatments, and her health has deteriorated terribly. A former athlete, she was now confined to a wheelchair. She did not get any schooling or instruction since being taken into custody, according to reports, which is completely against DCF’s own regulations.
In January, 2014, Justina was moved to a facility in Framingham, but her parents were still severely restricted from spending time with her. She was not even allowed to attend church on Easter.
In early May the DCF transferred Justina to a facility in Connecticut, though – strangely -- she was still considered to be in Massachusetts DCF custody, apparently with the cooperation of the State of Connecticut. Her parents were allowed to visit her fairly freely, and she was allowed to briefly go home on at least one occasion, but required to return that evening.
This unusual situation was widely seen as a way for DCF to “save face” while finding a solution to a problem that was becoming very uncomfortable and politically charged. Thus, the filing on by DCF on June 6 was seen by many as an awkward but inevitable cave-in to public pressure, though the state continued to make demands on the parents regarding "conditions" of a release right up to the end.
Horror in the Massachusetts court system
The parents’ treatment by the Massachusetts court system was a similar horror story.
From the beginning, the parents tried desperately to get the court, i.e., Judge Johnston, to release their daughter from DCF. But DCF lawyers fought hard to keep her in their custody. Judge Johnston conducted the proceedings in a particularly biased and arrogant manner, ruling consistently and harshly against the Pelletiers. For no logical reason, Johnston even refused to allow the family’s Liberty Counsel lawyer Matt Staver to join the case.
At one point, the judge made the unprecedented (and apparently unconstitutional) move of prohibiting Justina’s father, Lou Pelletier, from discussing the case with anyone. (When Lou ignored that prohibition and talked openly to the press, the judge backed down and revoked it.)
Then at a scheduled hearing in March, 2014, instead of freeing Justina as many expected, Johnston awarded permanent custody to DCF. The judge’s ruling included a particularly scathing attack on Justina’s parents, blaming their “behavior” for Justina’s continued captivity.
The “big lie” about family abuse
The original reason the state took Justina was that DCF simply disagreed with the Tufts medical team, which said she had a medical condition, in favor of the Children’s Hospital medical team, which said she didn’t have a medical condition but a psychiatric condition instead. Judge Johnston simply went along with that when he put Justina in state custody.
But it soon became clear that DCF had not had the medical expertise to make such a judgment. As the Boston Globe reported, DCF has no one on staff who can deal with "complex medical cases" such as this.
So the story began to surface that a major reason Justina could not be released from custody was that there was “credible evidence” that her parents were unfit and/or abusive. The Judge, the DCF, and the Governor all cited this. Furthermore, unless the parents could demonstrate that they were properly dealing with their own “abusive” behavior to the state’s satisfaction, and were willing to “cooperate” and “compromise” with the state, Justina would stay in custody, said the judge.
It was all a lie. There was no “evidence” of any kind of abuse or unfitness by Pelletier family. The State of Connecticut had previously investigated Justina’s parents and found nothing. When asked by Justina’s lawyers to show their evidence, the DCF and the Judge cited “confidentiality.” So in his ruling Judge Johnston cited Lou Pelletier’s anguished, emotional reaction at the court hearing as “proof” that he was an unfit father. It was beyond disgraceful.
Blocked in the Massachusetts political arena
Even a minimal knowledge of constitutional law, or how the legislature normally operates, would lead one to assume that the governor could simply order DCF to free Justina, or the Legislature could pass a special law requiring it.
There were three attempts to pass legislation. All of them were blocked or ignored by the legislative leadership, both Democrat and Republican.
The legislative establishment used some interesting excuses for not supporting these bills, including a phony “separation of powers” argument. Basically, it appeared they did not want to antagonize governor the DCF political juggernaut.
Citizens’ outrage in Massachusetts and across America
With the help of talk radio, conservative columnists, Glenn Beck, the Huckabee show on Fox News, and a lot of social media, the average conservative in Massachusetts, and many more around the country, were well aware of what was happening, and quite upset.
Although only a tiny percentage of those people actually got involved, over time they were quite effective. Many regularly out their anger at Massachusetts legislators, the Governor, the DCF, and Boston Children’s Hospital, through phone calls, emails, and a few local protests. Some people protested at appearances by the Governor in various parts of the state. Over time, these had a definite effect.
One of the biggest Justina events was a rally on May 24, in honor of Justina’s 16th birthday, in front of the Massachusetts State House. It was promoted by local WRKO talk show host Jeff Kuhner, who also acted as MC. Nearly a thousand people showed up, including Justina’s father.
Groups far and wide converge on Massachusetts to help Justina
Justina’s situation really struck a chord across America. Liberty Counsel, led by Attorney Matt Staver and the Christian Defense Coalition, led by Rev. Patrick Mahoney were the most active of the players who came into Massachusetts to specifically work with the Pelletier family. They did valuable legal and also grassroots organizing work. They were good at using the media -- particularly Fox News.
Several socially conservative groups, such as Personhood USA, showed up. There were also various Justina-related websites. MassResistance was the prominent in-state group that helped pressure the legislature around our bill to free Justina.
There was no shortage of groups and prominent individuals who made an effort to help in some way. In fact, there were so many – from across the political spectrum -- that at one point the Boston Globe published a big chart on it.
An easy cause to support
It’s no secret that the Justina cause attracted so many groups and media personalities because it was free of any “culture war” implications. It was not about abortion, homosexuality, the Obama Administration, or any number of other issues that cause friction. So anyone could publicly support it and not fear any retribution.
A fundraising bonanza
The fundraising that went along with the Justina case is rarely discussed. But it was pretty big, and it was national. Unlike most DCF-type cases these days, this got a tremendous amount of national attention. All of us have gotten a million emails fundraising for Justina’s cause. There were the websites raising money. A woman in Pensacola told us she turned on the radio and heard a fundraising appeal for Justina. (We don't know of any Massachusetts groups that did this, however.)
Late Sunday evening, Feb. 23, we got a call from some national activists in Tennessee. They said were going to be at the court hearing for Justina in Boston the following morning and they wanted to talk with us about it. Knowing there are few direct flights to Boston from there, we asked them how they would get here by 10 am. They said they would be riding in a corporate jet, so it would be no problem. At that point we knew that this was a big deal.
Given the financial challenges national conservative groups have these days, this was probably very good for the movement. And it's clear that the legal work and other help the Pelletier family received by out-of-state pro-family groups was a also a result of this.
A lesson for all of us: This is the future unless we stop it.
The Justina case had such national appeal because the average person was simply awestruck. No one could believe the barbaric behavior of a government agency against a defenseless family from another state. Nor could they fathom the sheer arrogance of government bureaucrats, the judiciary, and even elected legislators in the face of any decency or even common sense.
For completely unsubstantiated reasons, the government simply seized a child (who is a citizen of another state!) and kept her from her parents, under lock and key, without proper medical attention, education, or interaction with her family, against even the wishes of her doctors. Moreover, because of the absurd “medical” decision by DCF, Justina's physical and emotional health deteriorated terribly, and no one seemed to care.
More than just an obvious miscarriage of justice, it was like something out of Solzhenitsyn, or Orwell. Even left-wing websites such as Salon and Huffington Post were outraged. But none of that seemed to matter.
Given everything else around us that’s changing for the worse, we fear that this could be the norm of the future. The Justina affair is the progressive movement becoming freed of its restraints. Like totalitarians everywhere, the people doing this believe that they know better than the rest of us, and that they have the right and power to make intimate personal decisions in other people’s lives.
The challenge of the conservative movement is not to get people informed or angry. That’s pretty easy these days. It’s not even enough to get people to go to a rally.
It’s to get them to do something that’s actually confrontational. Calling. Demonstrating outside of government offices. Personally visiting politicians. The few people who did that made a big difference, in our estimation. Simply put, we must do more of it.
It’s a decision that each person must make for himself. But ultimately that’s what changes the world.