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Minn. Family Flees to Keep Son

August 20, 1999

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ To social workers, Wally and Debby Hines are abusive parents who beat their infant son until his bones broke and then skipped town one step ahead of police.

But family members and some doctors say the Hineses are victims of a misunderstanding _ parents whose 1-year-old son, Wyatt, has a rare brittle-bone disease that explains his multiple and repeated fractures.

``The county made a stand and they couldn’t figure out how to back out of it gracefully,″ said the child’s grandfather, Wally Hines Jr.

Wally Hines III, 30, and Debby Hines, 32, have been in hiding since April 27, when they learned police were coming for their son.

``We started to panic and cry,″ according an e-mail from the couple that was printed Wednesday in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. They communicated via e-mail instead of by phone because they fear capture. ``We felt so helpless against this all-powerful, cruel and unjust system.″

Their attorney’s efforts to negotiate a deal with Dakota County officials for their return have failed so far.

The problems began last year, when X-rays showed that Wyatt, then-6 weeks old, had broken a femur, or thigh bone, in two places. Child protection workers ordered more X-rays, and doctors found six broken ribs. The parents were accused of child abuse, and Wyatt was put in temporary foster care.

Eventually, two doctors diagnosed Wyatt with the brittle-bone disease osteogenesis imperfecta, or OI.

Dr. David Justis stood by his diagnosis Wednesday. He said there were no bruises around Wyatt’s fractures, and that the boy broke more ribs while in the hospital and in foster care _ typical of children with OI.

``They do nothing and they get fractures,″ he said. ``They sneeze and ribs break. They hit their legs on doors as they go through them and break their ankles.″

Authorities remain skeptical.

County Attorney James Backstrom, in a memo, said several doctors dispute the diagnosis and attribute the boy’s injuries to roughhousing by his father. The memo quoted police and medical workers as saying ``the father laughed when he discussed the child’s injuries, and he seemed totally unconcerned about them″ when the injuries first turned up.

``Relatives of the child’s mother who were consulted about the situation stated that they didn’t think the mother could protect the baby from the father, that the mother was `covering’ for her husband, and that the father can `lose control,‴ the memo said.

As for the injuries that happened in the hospital, Backstrom said the parents had unsupervised access to Wyatt.

Mary Beth Huber, a spokeswoman for the Ostoegenesis Imperfecta Foundation in Gaithersburg, Md., said it is easy to confuse OI with abuse. The genetic disease affects an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 Americans.

Tests for it are only about 85 percent accurate, and most emergency room physicians _ who often report suspected abuse to authorities _ have little or no experience with it, Huber said.

She said there are no figures on how widespread mix-ups are, but her organization received inquiries on potential cases from every state last year.

Wyatt was returned to his mother in November after three months in foster care. His father was required to live elsewhere for four weeks.

A final custody hearing was scheduled for May, but Wyatt broke his femur again in April and required another cast. When the Hineses missed a follow-up doctor’s appointment April 27, authorities sent police to their home for Wyatt.

The Hineses said they didn’t know the appointment was scheduled until a doctor inadvertently told them about the police.

``We felt the clock ticking loudly, knowing that at any minute they might whisk our precious son away from us,″ they told the newspaper. ``We both looked at each other and immediately knew that we had to leave.″

They fled the state, but not before grabbing whatever possessions they could, including letters from doctors and medical records that they believe exonerate them.

A judge has since awarded custody of Wyatt to the county and criminal flight charges have been filed against the parents.

The parents told the newspaper Wyatt is healthy, happy and getting medical care from doctors who have never questioned the OI diagnosis. Hines, who worked for Sun Country Airline, said he has found work as a pilot.

The couple would not disclose where they were living or whether they’re using fake identification, saying: ``We struggle daily with the fear of being discovered.″