Louis Pelletier’s voice began to break as he read letters from his daughter, Justina, to a jury from the witness stand on Friday. She sent them to him from the locked psychiatric ward in Boston Children’s Hospital.
“Dear Daddy. Happy Daddy’s day,” he read. He paused. His voice scraped over the words, “I love you so much. You’re the best daddy I could ever have. Always. Justina.”
Justina Pelletier, 21, was 14 when she wrote those words. She’s now at the center of a protracted lawsuit that her family is bringing against Boston Children’s and the doctors who treated her there. The family alleges the hospital kidnapped their daughter and mistreated Justina while she was there. The doctors say they provided Justina with appropriate care and took necessary actions to protect her from what they believed was child abuse at home.
During his testimony, Pelletier recounted the first few days Justina was in Boston Children’s Hospital. She was admitted on Feb. 10, 2013, at 4 in the morning for severe abdominal pain, a problem that she said had plagued her for her entire life. A few days later, Pelletier and his wife were on the phone with Boston Children’s doctors, asking them to involve Justina’s previous doctors from Tufts Medical Center in her care.
But doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital had begun to come to the conclusion that Justina’s medical problems were largely due to psychiatric issues. They wanted to put Justina in intensive psychiatric care in the hospital. Pelletier said that was fine, as long as Justina’s former doctors at Tufts Medical Center agreed with the plan, but as far as he knew, Boston Children’s Hospital wasn’t doing that.
He and his wife both got “extremely upset,” according to a note written by hospital staff on Feb. 13, 2013, that was read aloud by John Martin, one of Pelletier’s lawyers.
“ '[Parents] felt treatment goals did not meet those of previous providers,' ” Martin continued to read from the note during Louis Pelletier's testimony. “ 'Parents stated they did not believe in the psychological bologna.' Did you say that?”
“I probably did,” Pelletier said. “We just went through a whole process where [doctors] said Justina’s pain was in her head. We found out [later] the pain was really there in her stomach.”
Over the next day, Pelletier said he decided to take Justina out of Boston Children’s and take her back to Tufts Medical.
“It was Valentine’s Day,” he recalled. He arrived at the hospital for the first time and went straight to the nurse’s station to sign his daughter out. “I went to the desk multiple times for an hour. They said we’re trying to reach the attending, but there was no response.”
Pelletier said he started to feel like he and his wife would never get Justina out of the hospital. He called the Boston police, saying that Boston Children’s had kidnapped their daughter. Then, he said security guards showed up and removed the parents from the hospital premises.
“Numerous Boston Children’s security. They had uniforms on. They gave us a no trespass and said we weren’t allowed on the premises and we had to go to a [Department of Children and Families] office in Roxbury,” Pelletier testified.
During the cross-examination, the defense attorney, Ellen Cohen, read a report from a DCF employee that said Boston police officers had actually escorted the Pelletiers from the hospital, not hospital security.
“Parents were escorted by Boston police. They said parents became belligerent and out of control,” Cohen read. “According to reporter, mother and father were disrespectful to staff, calling names and being rude. They were the ones who called Boston police, saying the hospital was holding their daughter against their permission.”
Pelletier denied calling the staff names or being rude that day, though he said he remembers threatening the staff at Boston Children’s with legal action. He said he learned that Boston Children’s doctors had filed a 51A — a child abuse report — against him and his wife. They had been suspected of factitious disorder by proxy, a type of medical abuse where parents are doing something to cause the child’s symptoms or making them up. When Pelletier learned this, he said he felt betrayed.
“It was just a punch in the stomach,” he said. “We were falsely accused of doing something that we had not done. Now we were fighting for our daughter’s life.”
That report eventually led to the state taking custody of Justina, and the family was only allowed to visit her for an hour a week and speak to her on the phone for 20 minutes a week. According to their claims, doctors believed that, due to the nature of the alleged abuse, this was the best way for the girl to heal.
All of Justina’s communication and contact with her family was monitored, including the letters she sent her parents. In some, she would fold up slips of paper and tape them so they would be hidden from the hospital staff reviewing them.
“They pushed me to do stuff that is hard. They yell at me until I do it,” Pelletier read from one such slip. “They say stuff is in my head. Or she pushes me too hard to do stuff I can’t do [like walk] and blames it on family.”
Justina sat in the courtroom as her father read the letters. Her brows furrowed, and she closed her eyes.
The jury will decide if the doctors took the right course of action or, as the parents say, they violated the family’s civil rights.