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How Exceptional Massachusetts Lawmakers Embody the Spirit of Foster Care Awareness Month

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May is National Foster Care Awareness Month, and the courageous actions of leaders like Massachusetts state representatives Jim Lyons (R-Andover) and Marc Lombardo (R-Billerica) should remind us that it stands as an opportunity to challenge our leaders to improve the way the State does business to assist some 400,000 foster kids nationwide in need of permanent homes and connections.

In Massachusetts, the agency which oversees child maltreatment and State dependency cases does not refer to itself as Child Protective Services, rather, they are more aptly entitled the Department of Children and Families (DCF).

Last month, representatives Lyons and Lombardo filed House Docket No.4157 "Resolutions Acknowledging Serious Concerns regarding DCF's handling of the Justina Pelletier Case" in response to Juvenile Court Judge Joseph Johnson's decision to keep the lifelong Connecticut resident permanently in DCF custody on the grounds that the State doesn't like her parent's attitude. The decision comes less than a year after a judge dismissed a federal lawsuit filed by watchdog agency Children's Rights which alleged that DCF "routinely" places children in "dangerous and unstable situations."

Lyons and Lombardo have also asked their leaders to answer an important question:

"Does DCF have a blank check in this case?"

There are now at least 35 other legislators who also want to know how much money is being spent on the Pelletier matter. They are correct to question the competence and propriety of a State agency and a judge who needed over a year, as well as dozens of expensive legal and medical professionals to help them decide a single case involving a non-state resident child with two fit and feisty parents.

Until a year ago, Justina was a flourishing 14-year-old girl diagnosed with mitochondrial disease who lived with her parents in Connecticut, but received successful treatment for her deadly metabolic condition at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Her parents told the Boston Globe that back then, Justina had an active social life and took part in figure skating competitions.

Today, Justina is a wheelchair-bound ward of the state who has been warehouse for over a year in psychiatric facilities with no substantial access to her family and friends, and reportedly has resorted to scrawling SOS letters begging for physical protection from the same State workers charged with her care.

According to the Globe, Justina's decline arguably started in February 2013 when the Pelletier's took Justina to Boston Children's Hospital to be seen for the flu while her Tufts doctor was on vacation. Instead, BCH diagnosed Justina with somatoform disorder, which according to experts interviewed by the Boston Globe, is either a controversial psychiatric condition not universally accepted by the mainstream mental health community, or a clinically acceptable way of calling someone physically disabled a hypochondriac (take your pick).

The magnitude of the State's mistakes is difficult to determine because like all dependency cases heard in Massachusetts, Justina's case was heard behind closed doors and the file was sealed from public disclosure. Yet the measures currently pending in the Massachusetts legislature show just how concerned lawmakers are that BCH may have [intentionally or unintentionally] caused Justina to be placed in State care so that her alleged mistreatments could continue at their facility.

The State should never remove a child from a fit parent's care simply because that parent has a disposition that poses an inconvenience for an enterprising hospital and/or some misguided meddling social workers, but is not indicative of the parent's capability to effectively make decisions or raise their child. If this is not the case with Justina's family, Judge Johnson's recent decision raises a lot of questions about the propriety of the State's decisions.

If I had the opportunity, I would ask Judge Johnston the following questions:

  1. If you believe that BCH's diagnosis was correct, why did you place Justina back under the care of the same Tufts doctors who allegedly misdiagnosed her in the first place? If the parents have been correct all along, why not to allow them to be kept apprised of or participate in their own child's medical care?
  2. Since Connecticut DCF has already deemed the Pelletiers to be fit parents, why did you decide not to allow Justina to return home unless CT DCF re-opens the case and takes custody of Justina? Why do you think CT DCF would not agree to take Justina, if for no other reason other than to put the Pelletiers and Massachusetts taxpayers out of their misery?

Regardless of whether the State has made what turns out to be a fatal mistake, the Pelletiers have already lost the legal right to decide what protected information is released and whether or not an autopsy is necessary. This is particularly disturbing in light of a recent Boston Globe report that found that:

Over all, children who received services from social workers at DCF in 2010 were about six times as likely as the general population of Bay State children to die from maltreatment, according to the state's own calculations.

While some State leaders argue that the solution is to throw more money at the problem to put more cooks in DCF's kitchen, Lombardo and Lyons insist financial accountability must be part of the equation.

This month the two outstanding advocates used their professional platform to introduce Amendment #609 to H.4000, "An Amendment to Account for DCF Spending on the Justina Pelletier Case." In doing so, the representatives keenly pointed out mistakes in dependency cases aren't just costly for taxpayers, they are often deadly for children.

"The administration has indicated that DCF lacks the resources necessary to carry out their duties." says Lombardo. "If this is true, why is DCF spending what appears to be endless amounts of money fighting to keep a loving family and their daughter apart? With over 130 children under DCF care currently missing, it might be time for DCF to reevaluate their priorities."

In light of the recent indictments of several Massachusetts probation department heads working in the courts on federal racketeering and corruption charges, the smell of a local "patients for cash" scandal akin to the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court's "kids for cash" scandal will probably only continue to grow stronger as Justina's health continues to decline in State care. At the very least, most legitimate Massachusetts decision makers would probably agree that existing laws are clear that fit and feisty parents everywhere should be able to rest assured that that State will not terminate their relationship with their sick children just for walking into the wrong hospital.

As a Massachusetts Democrat, I think that perhaps from here on out, instead of trying to mitigate any liability Massachusetts may face for botching the Pelletier case, the Governor and the State's child protection agencies should seize the opportunity to correct their mistake and the fit and feisty parents who know Justina best can take her home and assume responsibility for her care. Their failure to do so is making us all look bad.