Boston Children’s Hospital was not negligent in its treatment of Justina Pelletier nor in its decision to report the teenager’s parents, Lou and Linda Pelletier of West Hartford, to child protection authorities in Massachusetts for medical negligence, a Boston jury ruled Thursday after a five-week trial.
“The jury’s decision affirms what Boston Children’s Hospital has always believed: that our clinicians provided Justina Pelletier high quality, compassionate care, and always acted in the best interest of her health and well-being,” the hospital said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
“This same standard of excellence guides the care we provide each child who comes to our hospital. We are extremely grateful to our teams for the extraordinary support they offer our patients and their families every day, and for the enormous difference they make in the lives of thousands of children.”
Doctors at Boston Children’s were concerned the parents had engaged in Munchausen syndrome by proxy with their youngest daughter, resulting in unnecessary tests and procedures that obscured her psychiatric needs, lawyers for the hospital argued during the trial in the Pelletier’s medical malpractice lawsuit.
The trial dissecting the quality of medical care Justina received at the renowned pediatric hospital came more than six years after she returned home at the conclusion of a custody battle involving two states, child protection officials, doctors from two hospitals and questions about what happens when parents disagree with medical practitioners.
Lawyer Ellen Cohen, who represented Boston Children’s and three of the four doctors named in the lawsuit, argued at trial that Justina’s treatment team had not considered filing a report alleging medical child abuse against the parents — until Lou Pelletier came to the hospital several days after Justina’s admission in February 2013 “demanding” that her daughter be released her parents, accusing the hospital of taking her “hostage” and calling the police.
Cohen said as mandated reporters, the doctors were obligated to file the abuse report to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families because they had a suspicion of abuse.
It was that abuse report that set off a 16-month custody battle between the Pelletiers and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that drew national attention over what the Pelletiers believed was a subversion of their parental rights. It was Massachusetts DCF that sought and received temporary custody of Justina.
In a trial involving a parade of expert witnesses and thousands of pages of medical records, witnesses for the hospital testified the Pelletiers were “resistant” to Justina’s psychiatric treatment and were hostile toward a treatment plan that the hospital’s pediatric specialists and psychologists felt was the best approach among the many that had been tried with Justina, who had been sick and plagued by developmental delays virtually since her premature birth.
In the midst of the custody battle, the parents held press conferences and prayer vigils and hired lawyers and “did everything that was in their power to do, and the hospital didn’t like that,” their lawyer, John Martin, said during the trial.
He denied the parents had ever “overmedicalized” their daughter or fabricated sicknesses of tried to induce symptoms, which are the features of Munchausen syndrome.
Martin said the family did receive a medical diagnosis for Justina from a previous hospital — Tufts — where it was also suggested that she receive psychiatric treatment since her gastrointestinal pain, extreme fatigue, inability to move her bowels, tendency toward dehydration, slurred speech and other conditions were thought to be more excessive that the medical tests would indicate.
The Pelletiers were initially uncomfortable with the psychological components of the Tufts diagnosis, so Tufts filed a report of medical child abuse of its own — with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. But that was more of a friendly effort, which invited the parents’ participation, said Martin, and resulted in a combination of services that improved Justina’s health.
Justina, then 13, ended up at Boston Children’s after her latest round of tests and treatment at Connecticut Children’s in Hartford didn’t resolve her condition, the family maintains.
The Pelletiers said they were limited to one visit a week and two 20-minute phone calls with Justina, but Cohen countered that it was Massachusetts DCF who set those limits.