On April 27, 1999, Wallis and Debby Hines threw some diapers and a few other necessities in the back of their station wagon, strapped their infant son into his child seat, and fled their home in Minnesota. They haven't been seen since.
But Wally and Debby aren't missing persons. They're fugitives, on the run from a child welfare system that some believe has gotten out of control.
Their story began in July of 1998, when their son Wyatt was born. At first, everything seemed normal until Debby took the baby to a pediatrician. Wyatt had been crying a lot, especially when his left leg was touched. Although the doctor said nothing was wrong, Debby later insisted that an x-ray be taken, which revealed a break. Additional x-rays showed six rib fractures. Suspecting child abuse, the doctors contacted state child welfare authorities.
The Hineses were shocked and had no idea how the injuries had occurred. And while they were upset that authorities had been called, they understood the doctors' concern. In fact, Debby was relieved when the discovery led to an even more important one - the diagnosis that their son exhibited symptoms of a rare disease known as osteogenesis imperfecta (O.I.), also known as brittle bone disease.
This disorder afflicts tens of thousands of Americans and has no cure. It's a genetic problem that causes bones to break easily with little or no trauma. Based on Wyatt's medical records and the Hines family history, two different doctors concluded that he could be suffering from O.I.
When Debby and Wally learned that their son could be afflicted with O.I., they found out everything they could about it to help make his life easier. But first they had to deal with an increasingly suspicious child welfare service.
Immediately after finding the breaks, a judge had Wyatt committed to foster care. The Hineses denied the allegations of abuse and fought to get their son back. After several months of hearings, in November the judge made a deal with the family. Debby was given her son back. Wally, the suspected abuser, was permitted to have supervised visitation for a six-month oversight period. The Hineses didn't agree that Wally was guilty of any abuse, but they consented to the deal for the sake of their son.
Toward the end of the six-month period, it looked like Wally and Debby would be able to get back to a normal life. But just three weeks shy of the supervision period, Wyatt re-broke his leg and the doctor put a cast on it. As the judge had instructed her, Debby reported the doctor's visit.
But child welfare didn't treat the case as another incident resulting from O.I. They wanted to interrogate the parents again.
Debby and Wally felt trapped. Strangers were threatening to take their child, again. This time, the removal could be permanent. In Minnesota, if a child is in foster care for six months - regardless of the reason - the state puts him or her up for adoption. Certain that the state would take their precious child again, they did what many concerned parents would do in the same situation - panicked. They took Wyatt and left town.
Were the Hineses guilty of abuse and just using the O.I. defense as an excuse? The fact is that during the few months Wyatt was in foster care, he suffered another broken bone. In addition, no medical personnel have ever reported any bruises on Wyatt's body.
The Hines family isn't alone in the battle to keep their child from being taken away by state authorities. All around the country, families with children suffering from O.I. have been ripped apart by child welfare services. BethAnn and Dan Kanwischer experienced the nightmare firsthand.
In 1993, the Kanwischers took their son Austin to a doctor's office with cold symptoms. X-rays, however, revealed 14 broken bones - 12 cracked ribs, a broken arm, a possible skull fracture and two broken collarbones. For the next three years, they fought to prove that they hadn't abused their young son.
Like Wyatt Hines, Austin tested negative for O.I. But even though the test often returns false negatives, child protective services put the Kanwischers through an ordeal that changed their lives forever.
The Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation, based in Gaithersburg, Md., receives regular calls from parents dealing with abuse issues. The Hineses didn't want to join the growing list of parents who have lost their children to overzealous child welfare service workers. And so now they're running scared, unwilling to take a chance on a system that has failed so many families.