Zeydn was three weeks old when I first noticed something was wrong. She's my fifth child, so I knew how babies her age were supposed to be growing. But when I picked her up, things just felt off. I could put my hand on her back and feel her ribs popping and cracking. It didn't seem to bother her, but it made me nervous. And so I took her to our pediatrician at the time, who said, "Oh, she's just adjusting to being outside the womb. She's perfect. Keep doing what you're doing."
Six weeks later — February 24, 2015, to be exact — something clearly was bothering her. She fussed anytime her right arm was moved. So like any parent would, I brought her to the doctor. Our usual was busy that day, so one of his colleagues sent us downstairs for X-rays. That physician caught me in the hallway a few minutes after we finished. He told me he'd ordered the wrong scan and that I had to go back downstairs.
That time, they wouldn't let me go into the room with her — they made me stand in the hallway. I thought, "Well that's odd." After what felt like forever, the doctor finally opened the door. He told me, "I want to let you know that we found three rib fractures and a fracture in your baby's right arm. I've already called the police and social services. They're on their way."
That same night, all five of my kids were removed from our home and put into foster care. We'd be kept apart for the next 10 months.
Zeydn is my first biological child with my husband, Anthony. I have four others — Zachary, Zoey, Zander and Zavier — from a previous relationship. Because there was no history of neglect or abuse with any of them, social services reasoned that Anthony must be the abuser, and that I knew about it the entire time. It didn't seem to matter that my husband, who's active duty military, was away when Zeydn's fractures supposedly occurred.
We'd just moved into a house big enough for all of us, and the silence was deafening. I felt frozen. I just kept saying, "How could this happen?" Then one evening in March, my phone started going crazy with Facebook notifications and text messages. People were saying, "Your story is on 20/20 right now. Turn on 20/20." There were two families featured on the episode, Cynthia and Brandon Ross, and . Their situations sounded exactly like mine. Cynthia had taken her then-two-month-old son Ryder to the doctor for a swollen ankle; when the doctor discovered he had multiple fractures throughout his body, he and his older sister were taken and placed with their grandparents. Bria's daughter Kenley was removed from their home at just three months old — all because Andrew had brought the baby to the E.R. after hearing her hip pop during a diaper change. Both children, it turned out, had underlying medical conditions that caused their bones to become brittle. Ryder was later diagnosed with metabolic bone disease and Ehlers Danlos syndrome, a genetic connective tissue disorder, while Kenley, it turns out, was suffering from Ehlers Danlos and a severe vitamin D deficiency.
I reached out to Bria on Facebook, and she introduced me to Cynthia. With Cynthia and Bria's guidance, I started to do my own research. I discovered that the standard of care when an infant presents with unexplained fractures is to first test their parathyroid hormone levels and vitamin D levels to rule out rickets. State doctors took almost seven weeks to get Zeydn tested. When they did, they determined that her parathyroid levels were elevated and her vitamin D level was nearly undetectable — both indicators of infantile rickets. I had my own vitamin D levels checked and found I was severely deficient, too.
Throughout our ordeal, social services kept pressuring us to just admit we'd hurt Zeydn. They told us they wouldn't feel comfortable giving us more visitation rights unless we acknowledged that we'd caused her broken bones. I even had a former friend tell me I should just admit everything so we could start the process of getting our kids back. But I would never have perjured myself, and I would never have allowed my husband to. I'll never say that I did something that in my heart I know I didn't do.
When it was time for us to go to trial, three months after our kids were removed, we were feeling pretty good about the whole thing. We'd done everything we were supposed to do; we had proof that Zeydn's fractures were being caused by her weakened bones, not abuse. But some of our medical experts weren't allowed to testify, and without their evidence, we didn't have a fighting chance.
There was one sliver of hope: The court gave us permission to travel to a specialist in Boston. So we flew with our baby — and two social workers, whose travel and food and hotel we were forced to pay for — from our home in Missouri to the East Coast. There, we met with at the Boston University Medical Center, an expert on Vitamin D deficiency. He ultimately diagnosed Zeydn with rickets and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, the same disorder Ryder has, which causes joint hypermobility. (Anthony and I were also diagnosed with the genetic disorder.) With EDS, you're able to move and bend in ways that a healthy person wouldn't be able to. When your bones are as brittle as Zeydn's were, the results can be catastrophic.
We had our second opinion, from one of the world's leading experts on the issue no less. Then there was the fact that Zeydn had suffered other fractures when she was in foster care. But that wasn't enough to end the case. Furious, I kept talking about what had happened to us to anyone who would listen — newspapers, TV stations, you name it. I wanted everyone to hear our story. At a certain point, I think the people in charge of our case just wanted to be done with us and said, "We need to send these kids home."
The transition was a gradual one. At that point, we'd been given unlimited (supervised) visitation rights; in September of 2016, we were all finally reunited during a trial home placement. When the social worker finally told my children they were going home for good, my oldest, Zachary, started crying and hugged her. Even at 8 years old, that's where he knew he needed to be.
Having my kids home was amazing. And terrifying. At the time, I was pregnant with our sixth child, and I kept the pregnancy a secret as long as I could because I didn't want to give social services a reason to keep the case open or to steal my new infant away from me. When they finally gave us our kids back, we packed up our big new house and moved into a rental 30 miles away. We kept the blinds closed at all times and bolted all the doors and the windows. One day, somebody's dog was running around the neighborhood and the police knocked on our front door to ask if we knew who it belonged to. Two of my kids ran and hid under the kitchen table. It was awful. My kids aren't supposed to be afraid of police officers, just like I'm not supposed to be afraid to take them to the pediatrician.
If you had told me three years ago that parents lost their kids because their babies had broken bones, I'd have said, "Good, because those kids are probably being abused." And sadly, many of them are. But a shocking number of accused parents are to prove their innocence, even if there's very little evidence pointing to abuse.
To this day, my husband and I are listed on the state's child abuse and neglect registry. The state of Missouri has a specific time frame in which they allow you to appeal, but because our trial happened when it did, we missed our window. I have years with my kids ahead of me, yet I'm barred from volunteering at my children's school. I can't go on field trips with them. It sometimes feels like I can't do anything with them.
What I can do is this: help other families avoid the hell we found ourselves in. Bria, Cynthia and I, along with a handful of other wrongfully-accused parents, currently run , which advocates for family court reform across the U.S. Bria and Rana, two Fractured Families board members, recently lobbied to get a passed in Texas that requires a third party panel of medical experts to evaluate children with unexplained fractures before they're removed from the home. Right now, I'm looking for someone to sponsor a similar bill in Missouri. I'd like to call it "Zeydn's Law" — that way, when Zeydn's older, she'll have proof of how hard her parents fought for her and her siblings, and how our determination never wavered.
At home, Anthony and I are doing our best. All of our older kids show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder — we're constantly reminding them that they're safe with us and that nobody is going to steal them from us again. We go overboard with the celebrations to try to create new, positive memories. We even took the kids to Disney World in July in the hopes that the happiest place on Earth would offer some kind of solace. But I don't think the fear will ever be gone. I know mine isn't. I would be lying if I didn't say that I believe the safest day for each of them will be when they age out of the system that nearly destroyed our family.