Constitutional Law

Family of teen hospitalized in medical diagnosis conflict files malpractice and civil rights suit

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The family of a Connecticut teen put in the custody of the state of Massachusetts for more than a year and hospitalized against their wishes has filed a medical malpractice and civil rights suit against Boston Children’s Hospital and four physicians.

Weeks before Justina Pelletier was misdiagnosed at Children’s with primarily psychiatric issues, she was ice skating, her parents say. But now she is no longer able to walk, due to mistreatment by the hospital, the family alleges in the suit. It was filed Suffolk Superior Court in Boston.

Boston Children’s disagreed with a prior diagnosis by Tufts Medical Center that the teen suffered from a rare genetic disease and contended that her parents were abusing her by pushing for unneeded treatment, which resulted in the state taking custody.

Released in 2014 after spending more than 16 months in state custody, much of that time in a locked psychiatric ward, Pelletier, who is now 17, was present at a Thursday news conference in a wheelchair, the Boston Globe (sub. req.) reports. She has had several surgeries and hopes to walk again, she and her family said.

When Louis and Linda Pelletier brought their daughter to Boston Children’s in 2013 for gastrointestinal distress, she had already been diagnosed at Tufts with mitochondrial disease. They objected to the new psychiatric diagnosis and, in particular, to the withdrawal of medication prescribed at Tufts.

But when they sought to return with their daughter to Tufts for treatment, Boston Children’s reported the situation to the state of Massachusetts as a case of potential medical child abuse. The parents lost custody, according to the Associated Press.

The state is not named as a defendant, and attorney Kathy Jo Cook, who represents the family, said Massachusetts was relying on medical advice when it acted.

However, Boston Children’s said it had a legal duty to report suspected child abuse to the state and it was then up to the state to determine how to proceed, the AP article reports.

“Boston Children’s Hospital welcomes the opportunity to vigorously defend the medical care it provided to Justina Pelletier,” the hospital said in a written statement. “We are committed to the best interests of our patients’ health and well-being, according to the high standards we follow for every patient placed in our care.”

Although the suit seeks damages, the Pelletier family said the litigation is motivated by a desire to prevent hospitals from riding roughshod over families and allow parents to seek treatment for their children without fear of having them taken away.

“Just imagine being in a psych ward without needing to be in a psych ward,” Justina Pelletier said. “I’m very angry, and I just don’t understand how this happened, and I really don’t want this to happen ever again to any other family.”

Related coverage: “State agrees teen should be returned to family in controversial medical-diagnosis case”

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