VANCOUVER - Every time she says goodbye to her five-year-old son, his mother struggles to explain why.
"I just say, 'The ministry is not allowing me to stay with you, honey. They're afraid. Your legs keep breaking,'" she recalls through tears.
The British Columbia Ministry of Children and Family Development seized the woman's two children last month, for the second time, because of unexplained breaks in her son's legs. Since he was a baby, he has suffered at least a dozen broken bones.
The mother and father cannot be named because their children are in foster care and cannot be identified.
A mother from B.C., who can't be identified, poses for a photo on Nov. 9, 2016 after her two children were seized last monthbecause of unexplained breaks in her son's legs. (Photo: Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)
The soft-spoken aboriginal couple from northern B.C. say they love their children and would never abuse them. Community members say they are excellent parents and their eight-year-old daughter has never had unexplained injuries.
The ministry says it cannot discuss the case due to privacy legislation, but it investigates reports from the public, including doctors, about possible abuse and determines whether children must be placed in care for their safety.
The parents say they've spent years trying to figure out why their son has repeatedly broken bones. Brittle bone disease has been ruled out, though he could have a rare form, but they suspect he has autism and possibly a condition that limits his sensitivity to pain.
The mother has provided The Canadian Press with reports written by doctors and a psychologist who have examined the boy.
"Because he does not feel pain the way other children do, he could be seriously injured and not realize it."
His first break was found at 11 months old, when the couple noticed a bump on his arm and brought him to hospital. The doctor wrote that she would need to report it to the ministry, but she didn't feel there was any indication of abuse as the boy was well-dressed, clean and "obviously happy."
A different doctor wrote in 2014 that the injuries were not typical of toddlers and suggested investigation regarding possible unwitnessed abuse.
His mother said her son's medical care has suffered from delays, including biopsy appointments that were cancelled four times by BC Children's Hospital before the procedure was finally done in April.
A recent psychologist's report found the little boy has a very high pain threshold, is not cautious around hot and sharp objects and is a risk-taker, including jumping from high places.
"Because he does not feel pain the way other children do, he could be seriously injured and not realize it," the psychologist wrote.
Waiting for autism assessment
The report also said he has low verbal abilities and a number of red flags for autism, including repetitive behaviours and difficulty socializing. His parents say he's on a wait list for the BC Autism Assessment Network, which averages seven months.
The couple is furious the ministry removed their kids twice — seizing them in July and returning them in September, before taking them again a month later.
A social worker said in court documents in September that she had spoken at length with community members and professionals involved with the family and all described "loving, caring, involved parents who were dedicated to their children."
But in October, the children's hospital found five new fractures that occurred after the boy was returned to his parents, court documents say. The medical team reported the fractures were suspicious for blunt force trauma, but the family disagreed.
The mother said the boy is now in foster care in Vancouver while he undergoes extensive medical testing. Her daughter is in foster care in their hometown, and the parents are distraught the siblings have been separated and that the girl is with a non-native family.
Sixty-one per cent of children in care in British Columbia are aboriginal. The family says they have faced discrimination and barriers to medical care because they are from a small northern First Nations community.
The ministry said its primary concern is to protect children, regardless of background. BC Children's Hospital could not speak about specific cases, but said its doctors and medical staff work diligently to ensure children receive the treatment they need as quickly as possible.
'Nightmare' for couple
Doug Donaldson, an NDP member of the legislature, said he knows the couple and their "nightmare" reveals health care gaps in the north.
"These are two young people who have had to travel down repeatedly to BC Children's Hospital for services,'' he said. "The system has failed this young couple."
A teacher who has the couple's daughter in her class said the girl is bright, happy and shows no signs of neglect or abuse.
She described the little boy in an interview as "hyper."
"He just flies. He doesn't seem to know pain, that kid."
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