Family says teen in state custody has not been allowed to practice her faith

BRAINTREE -- The case of 15-year-old Justina Pelletier, who was removed from her parent's care over alleged neglect and placed in the care of the state in 2013, has troubled many. Particularly troubling to some Catholics are the family's allegations that the state has denied her access to the practice of her Catholic faith.

In February 2013, during treatment of a rare mitochondrial disease at Tufts Medical Center, Pelletier was transferred to Boston Children's Hospital. Her parents received notification from doctors there that her treatment for the mitochondrial disease would discontinue, in favor of treating her condition as a psychological disorder. When the parents refused to accept the new diagnosis, the hospital contacted the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families who removed her from their care.

After she was removed from the care of her family, a juvenile court in Massachusetts gave custody of Justina Pelletier to DCF.

In recent days, DCF announced that Pelletier was to be returned to Connecticut -- but not to the custody of her parents.

DCF denied that her faith practice was impeded while in the care of the state.

According to DCF, they respect the religious traditions of all children in the care of the organization, and DCF said they met all of Pelletier's requests for religious services.

"While she was at Children's Hospital she also participated in weekly religious services," Mary-Leah Assad, of DCF, said in an email.

A spokesperson for the family disagreed and said the organization gave Justina access to ecumenical services -- but not Catholic Mass, the sacraments, or religious education for 14 months.

"It's not up to DCF to determine what kind of Christian service she should go to. It's up to Justina, and she wanted to go to Mass, and she wanted to see a priest, and she was denied that basic right. It isn't up to the state to decide, well, we're going to give her an interdenominational service, or we're going to give her something else. That's an imposition of religion by state onto a citizen, and that's clearly unconstitutional," Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition based in Washington, told The Pilot on behalf of the family.

Rev. Mahoney, a Presbyterian minister, said Pelletier was denied access to her Catholic faith for 14 months, before the state allowed her to attend Mass near Easter.

"Just this Easter she did go to Mass, but again, that was even troubling. She wanted to go with her family, which they denied, and she wanted to go on Easter Sunday, and they didn't allow her to go on Easter Sunday. She went to Mass on Saturday," he said.

Rev. Mahoney said the family continues to try and work out access for their daughter to her Catholic faith with DCF.

DCF provided a statement to The Pilot indicating a commitment to sending the child to Connecticut and reuniting her with her family. The statement only mentioned Pelletier having the ability to express her Catholic faith on Easter.

"We were also pleased we could help arrange for Justina to observe religious services and to spend time with her family on Easter. But we hope she is able to spend future holidays with her family in Connecticut," said Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services John Polanowicz.

Afterward, public remarks by Polanowicz indicated that in Connecticut she will be in the care of a "vendor" of DCF.

Polanowicz said state officials are working to get the girl home as soon as possible, possibly in time for her birthday on May 24.

"We'll continue to work with the family," he said. "We know there is a big date coming up for Justina and we'd love to have her home by that date."

Pelletier will remain under the custody of the state of Massachusetts after being transferred to the Connecticut facility. A Juvenile Court judge will have a final say on whether Justina should be returned to her family in West Hartford, about 50 miles from the facility she was to be sent to.

Associated Press materials contributed to this story.

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