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CT DCF Commissioner: Pelletier ‘Circus’ About Parents, Not Justina

Justina Pelletier has been free since the middle of June. That’s when the State of Massachusetts released the now 16-year-old West Hartford teen back to the cus...

Justina Pelletier has been free since the middle of June.

That’s when the State of Massachusetts released the now 16-year-old West Hartford teen back to the custody of her parents, following a sixteen month custody battle. What remains unclear is exactly what led to that return after so many months of dispute. To gain a better perspective on the involvement of both Connecticut and Massachusetts, Fox CT News filed a Freedom of Information Act request, asking for all emails about Pelletier, sent from the Governor’s Office.

Fox CT obtained nearly 100 emails through the request, filed by Fox CT in late April 2014, but not fulfilled until mid-July.

Read the entire emails below, or here

According to the Governor Dannel Malloy’s office, the Governor personally sent zero emails containing the words “Justina Pelletier”, “Pelletier” or “Pelletiers” between February 2013 and April 2014.

But his staffers sent plenty.

The correspondence between staffers in Malloy’s office provide a glimpse into what the administration knew about the case and how it chose to handle information and communicate messages to the public.

The first email from Governor Malloy’s office about the Pelletier case was sent on February 2nd 2014 in response to questions for the Governor, emailed to his staffers by Fox CT News.

Malloy spokesman, David Bednarz, emailed fellow staffers and legal counsel asking “Do we have anything on this that we can give him? Should we have DCF respond?.”

The Governor’s Director of Communications, Andrew Doba, responded minutes later writing “Not sure if DPH has had any interaction with them” referring to the Pelletier family.

Five minutes later, adding to the email chain, staffer Samaia Hernandez wrote “Gary at DCF is handling. I think we should stay away from this.”

The email chain then shows staffers decided to consult with Department of Children and Families Commissioner Katz and proceeded to set up a conference with her.

Despite the fact that Justina Pelletier was first taken into Massachusetts state custody in February 2013 and that Fox CT News aired the first ever news report on the case in November 2013, Governor Malloy’s staff appeared unfamiliar with the case as of February 2014 (at which point Pelletier was still in Massachusetts custody) according to their internal emails.

After the Governor’s office sent a short generic statement to Fox CT News the first week of February 2014, no further emails were sent until February 18th, when Fox CT reached out to Connecticut DCF with questions about the agency’s policy in cases involving multiple states.

Connecticut DCF Spokesman Gary Kleeblatt wrote to Malloy staffer, Samaia Hernandez, “Beau is at this story again. Below are answers Joette wants to provide Beau in response to his questions… Let me know if you have questions…”.

Hernandez forwarded that email to Governor Malloy’s Chief Legal Counsel, Luke Bronin.

The next day, a staffer emailed Doba, Malloy’s Director of Communications, reporting that the office “received over 60 calls today concerning the Justine (sic) Pelletier case in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Apparently the parents were on a talk show on Fox News pleading for the Governor to assist them in this court case. The callers are asking for the Governor to … make a statement on the case. Do you have a formal response we should be telling these callers?.”

Doba forwarded that email to Bronin, who emailed Katz writing “Can we discuss please?.”

That evening at 11:15pm, staffer David Bednarz sent an email to others in the Governor’s office referencing the Pelletier case and writing in part “We are getting a lot of people sending us Tweets urging us to get involved”.

Many of those people were organized through groups and pages on Facebook, called “A Miracle for Justina” and “Free Justina Pelletier from Boston Children’s Hospital”. Combined, those groups currently have more than 60,000 members. Throughout the custody saga, members would dedicate days to calling Governor Deval Patrick’s office in Massachusetts or Governor Dannel Malloy’s Office in Connecticut to urge action on behalf of Pelletier.

By late February, Governor Malloy’s Office appears to have been keeping a much closer eye on the Pelletier situation. On February 28th, staffer David Bednarz forwarded a tweet posted by Fox CT reporter Beau Berman that read “DCF spokesman confirms the agency is working to return #JustinaPelletier to Connecticut & medical treatment will be with Tufts Med Center”.   Bednarz sent the tweet to fellow staffer, Hernandez and Hernandez then forwarded it to Doba and Bronin. Bronin emailed Commissioner Katz writing “Can we talk again?.”

Also on February 28th, DCF Spokesman Kleeblatt sent Hernandez a draft of a media statement intended for release to Fox CT News.   The statement read in part “Connecticut DCF has made its ombudsman available to the Pelletier family and will continue to work with the family to play a constructive role and do everything possible to help the family work with the Massachusetts DCF, which retains legal custody of Justina.”

Hernandez forwarded it to Doba who wrote “This sounds like we are doing nothing to help this situation while MA is actively trying to place her home. Think we need a strong response.”

On February 28th CT DCF issued a statement to the public, writing: “… Connecticut has received a request from Massachusetts to assess a resource in Connecticut for possible placement of Justina. Connecticut is actively working with Massachusetts authorities to assess this placement. In addition, Connecticut is working with the Pelletier family to identify services they may need going forward.”

But Connecticut Department of Children and Families Commissioner, Joette Katz, chose not to accept West Hartford teen Justina Pelletier into Connecticut last March (2014), according to several emails obtained by Fox CT News.

In a March 1st email Katz wrote to several state officials, “Not taking this child under the current circumstances… The parents’ reactions throughout this circus is proof positive that this is about them and not justina (sic)… it should be clear to everyone now that this case is a marathon and not a sprint.”

In another email written later on March 1st, Katz wrote: “This case is extremely complicated- both medically and legally. As you know I have been coordinating DCF’s response to Massachusetts authorities for some time and have been very careful in my public statements. Work at the agency and with the attorney general’s office also has been very carefully managed.”

Fox CT reached out to the Commissioner for clarification about the comments, after obtaining the emails in mid-July.

“I am not going to talk publicly about the Pelletier family. They have endured a great deal over an extended period of time, and I wish the family and Justina well,” said Katz in a statement emailed to Fox CT on July 23rd.

“I am very aware and expect that parents and families will respond with great urgency and emotion when it comes to their children and most particularly when their children are removed from their care.  I do believe that as a child welfare agency we need to be both responsive to immediate needs of children and also take the long view when it comes to child well-being.”

While the Katz emails showed up in connection with the Freedom of Information request filed with the Governor’s Office, a separate FOI request for all emails sent by CT DCF officials pertaining to the Pelletier case, was denied.

By late March, Governor Malloy’s Office was dealing with blowback from Judge Joseph Johnston’s 4-page ruling, awarding permanent custody of Justina Pelletier to Massachusetts DCF. People were calling Connecticut asking why they were not more involved.

Governor’s Office staffer, Jamal Gatling, emailed Andrew Doba writing “We are getting a lot of calls about the ruling specifically because the judge faulted CT DCF for not getting involved. We need something from DCF or you all. Callers are stating that CT DCF involvement falls under the Governor’s purview… If CT DCF had some involvement in this matter, it would be helpful to know to what extent… IF the judge is using CT DCF as a scapegoat to take the pressure off him then we need to know that and we will come up with a politically correct way to communicate that to the callers.”

On Friday March 28th, CT DCF continued monitoring media accounts of the Pelletier case. Kleeblatt emailed his boss, Commissioner Katz, and carbon copied others, writing “Joette, I think this came out very well. Sarah Eagan made very helpful remarks (about Ken no less). Even Patrick Mahoney – another pal of Ken’s) – stuck up for us. Kind of funny.”

Kleeblatt then posted the link to an article about the Judge’s ruling in the Hartford Courant newspaper.

Sarah Eagan is the state’s Child Advocate and “Ken” is likely a reference to Ken Mysogland, who was copied on that email. Mysogland is the Director of the Office of Foster Care and Adoption in Connecticut.

By the morning of April 2nd, a staffer from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s Office reached out to Governor Dannel Malloy’s Office writing “Gov Patrick is looking to connect with Gov. Malloy this morning if possible.”

Gov. Patrick’s staffer wrote “Your boss isn’t mentioned in my bosses letter, but I think he wants to give him a heads up that there are calls for them to work together on this/ask for continued cooperation from your DCF teams/generally give him the lay of the land”.

Before noon, Dan DeSimone, the Director of Gov. Malloy’s Washington DC office, was emailing Malloy directly writing “Governor Patrick will try to call you this afternoon concerning the Justina Pelletier case. Attached is a letter Gov. Patrick received late last week from their state’s GOP leadership (it copied you), asking Gov. Patrick to work with you to facilitate Ms. Pelletier’s return to CT. Also attached is Gov. Patrick’s response, noting that MA Div. of Children & Families has been communicating with CT DCF to resolve this situation (it does not mention you by name). I’m told he wants to make sure you’re aware of the correspondence and to give you his read on where things stand”.

Emails show Governor Patrick was scheduled to call Governor Malloy at 1:45pm that day and Malloy’s Chief Legal Counsel sent some talking points to Malloy on what DCF had done. It’s unclear whether that phone call ever took place.

On April 22nd, staffer Jamal Gatling emailed staffer Samaia Hernandez, writing “… we are getting a fairly decent amount of out-of-state calls urging the Governor to publicly exert pressure on Gov. Patrick to release Justina to her family.”

Fox CT reached out to Massachusetts DCF Spokesman Alec Loftus for comment from Governor Patrick, HHS Secretary John Polanowicz and/or the interim Massachusetts DCF Commissioner, Erin Deveney, but none provided any response.

When asked for comment, Justina Pelletier’s father, Lou Pelletier, said the family would address the situation “in due time”.

“We’re pretty appalled at some of the comments made in there by both the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut regarding the situation. In due time, we will respond accordingly,” said Pelletier.

Governor Malloy’s Director of Communication, Andrew Doba, responded to a request for comment.

“We were aware of the story prior to February 2nd,” said Doba.

“As you know the case was under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts courts.  We have a tremendous amount of empathy for the Pelletiers and are pleased that this situation has been resolved.  We hope the family can continue to heal after what must have been an unimaginably difficult ordeal.”

Pelletier Email