(Image: supplied).

The girl with the broken bones goes home: an update

The family whose two children were taken by Oranga Tamariki has finally been reunited. Joris de Bres documents the family court’s ruling to return their daughter.

Little Emma, the girl with the broken bones, turned two this week. The next day the Family Court discharged the custody order which had been in place since she was taken from her parents in September 2016 at the age of six weeks. It was the best of presents.

Emma was taken into state custody because hospital staff discovered a number of healing fractures which must have occurred between birth and her hospitalisation for an unrelated condition at five weeks. Her parents were suspected of child abuse, but subsequent tests revealed that in fact she had osteogenesis imperfecta, more commonly known as brittle bones. Despite this, Oranga Tamariki retained her in custody and took away her baby brother Liam as well when he was born a year later.

Agreement was finally reached in January this year that Liam would be returned to his parents. The possibility of Emma’s return was also mooted, depending on whether the medical experts on both sides could agree that brittle bones provided an explanation for the original fractures. A process for her return began in May.

In advance of the Family Court hearing this week, all parties agreed to apply for a rehearing of the original declaration that Emma was in need of care and protection and for the custody order made by the court in 2016 to be discharged.  Support orders will continue in place pending any rehearing, but these are intended to provide the family with assistance rather than separation.

The sad thing is that the whole process has taken nearly two years when it should arguably never have happened in the first place. Emma had some of the classic symptoms of brittle bones when her fractures were first discovered – fractures that had already started to heal and had not been noticed by anyone (including medical staff on earlier admission to hospital), pronounced blueness of her eye whites, and x-ray evidence of “wormian bones”.

Baby Liam, and his sister Emma (photo: supplied).

A test for brittle bones was only called for several month later when a GP noticed her blue eye whites and recognised them as a symptom. While Oranga Tamariki’s medical experts accepted the diagnosis they initially continued to dispute that brittle bones had caused the fractures. After evidence was obtained by the parents’ lawyers from overseas experts, it was gradually accepted that brittle bones was a probable cause.  

The discharge of the custody order is a new chapter in the life of this family. But nothing will be able to erase the experience of having two babies taken away from them by the state at birth or soon after and not having them in their care, for most of the first two years in the case of Emma, and for the first six months in the case of her baby brother Liam.

One wonders how many other parents this might have happened to. Internationally, there are documented cases of brittle bones being confused with child abuse.  

Next week, in the Blenheim District Court, a young couple are facing charges of neglect for failing to get medical help for a skull fracture and other injuries to their baby. They were charged in March last year and their baby was taken into custody. Their lawyers have obtained medical evidence that this too is a case of brittle bones, but have not been able to have the evidence considered by Oranga Tamariki’s medical experts. At the court on 10 July, Judge Bill Hastings set the case for 6 August and called for Oranga Tamariki to attend to explain the delay. He said “Already we’ve been 15 months with nothing happening. It’s not acceptable… We need an explanation why 15 months have gone by.”

Judge Hastings’ impatience is commendable. Whether or not brittle bones offers an explanation in this case I don’t know. For Emma and Liam’s parents, and for others I have spoken with, 15 months is not a long time for these matters to be dealt with in the Family Court or the District Court – but it’s a terribly long time to be without your children and without knowing whether you’ll ever get them back.


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