The Patrick administration has dramatically reversed itself in the Justina Pelletier case, and asked a judge to reunite her with her family, The Globe reported this week.
I think this reversal shows the power that Governor Patrick has to intervene in these cases. He should do the same with the Duzan and McDonald cases, in which the Department of Developmental Services has similarly supported draconian restrictions on contact by family members with loved ones in the DDS system.
Justina Pelletier spent nearly a year in a locked ward in Boston Children’s Hospital after doctors there disagreed with the family’s diagnosis that Justina was suffering from mitochondrial disease. The Children’s Hospital doctors claim her illness is psychological, and as a result they got a judge to agree to award temporary custody of her to the state Department of Children and Families.
Late last week, DCF reversed its longstanding opposition to reuniting Justina with her parents and filed a request with the judge to allow her to return home. The Globe noted that Executive Office of Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz played a personal role in trying to broker a resolution of the case. There is no doubt in my mind that Polanowicz was acting on orders from the governor and that the governor was starting to view the Pelletier case as a political liability for himself and wanted to see it resolved.
The state, human services and health care providers, the courts and their appointed guardians and other authorities have enormous coercive power over families, particularly when it comes to making decisions about care for persons with illnesses or disabilities. This power is often exercised without restraint even though federal law explicitly states that families should be considered the “primary decision makers” in the care of loved ones with disabilities. But that raw exercise of power does come with some political risks if the case has a high enough public profile, and the Pelletier case certainly has had that.
Unfortunately, the mainstream media has so far been uninterested in looking into the Duzan and McDonald cases and potentially others like them. As a result, those cases have not been resolved.
The state’s power to intervene in family affairs is a sensitive political issue that politicians apparently don’t want to involve themselves with unless they are pushed into it through public pressure. I’ve asked two candidates for statewide office in Massachusetts, who have touted their political independence, for their view on the Pelletier case — Don Berwick, who is running for governor, and Maura Healey, who is running for attorney general. (I asked Berwick the question in an online “town hall” meeting that he held a couple of weeks ago, and I posed the question to Healey as a comment in a blog post about her.) Neither candidate has responded.
Since I “participated” in Berwick’s town hall event, I do get constant requests from the campaign for money. But personally, before I support a candidate, I want to see that they have the political fortitude to answer a question about the Pelletier case or a case like it.