The emergency-room doctor was furious at what he had seen, recalled Audre'y Eby, who is Rosebud Sioux and the mother of disabled 16-year-old twins. One of her sons, who is blind and autistic, squirmed on the examination-room table, screaming, "Ow, ow, it hurts!" The doctor had found livid red and purple bruises covering his penis and scrotum, according to the Nebraska hospital's records. Those injuries would soon lead to an arrest warrant for the mother -- not because she had caused the harm, but because she did not return her son, along with his wheelchair-bound twin, to their abusers.
Indian child welfare expert Frank LaMere called the twins' situation more extreme than any he'd seen in his many years of work in the field. "These boys are suffering," said LaMere, who is Winnebago and the director of Four Directions Community Center in Sioux City, Iowa.
The day before the ER visit, Eby drove from the Nebraska farm where she lives with her husband, Faron, to pick up her boys from their father in Iowa. It was early August 2013, and she would have them for the once-a-month weekend visit that the courts allow her. The boys' father is Eby's ex-husband; he has physical custody of the kids, and his live-in girlfriend is their primary caretaker. Eby is Native, and the father and his girlfriend are white -- facts that LaMere says overshadow decisions that social-services professionals and the courts make on the children's behalf.
During the five-hour drive to Nebraska, both twins complained. Eby put the grumbling down to the road trip -- a long one for such special-needs kids. The sighted twin has cerebral palsy and can suffer painful muscle spasms, and his brother has residual discomfort from a vehicle accident he was in with his father a few years ago. "We stop for breaks, but it's a lot of sitting still," Eby said.
The next day, the blind twin began complaining again, and Eby saw blood in his overnight diaper. Alarmed, she and Faron loaded both boys into their car and headed for the ER. After the exam, at a moment when only health-care personnel were present, the doctor took the opportunity to ask his patient, "Who did this to you?" The child named his father's girlfriend. The doctor questioned the sighted twin, who confirmed his brother's story.
The doctor told Eby that the injuries were consistent with being kicked in the groin. He reported the alleged abuse to Nebraska's Department of Health and Human Services, hospital records show. Eby says the physician also warned her that if she didn't keep the boys in Nebraska until their well-being could be guaranteed in Iowa, he'd have to report her for exposing children to an unsafe situation: "He said Nebraska law required him to do that."
The Nebraska doctor's report launched an extensive investigation by Iowa's Child Protective Services (CPS), including interviews of social workers and others who'd interacted with the twins and a Telemed closed-circuit TV conference observed by social-services and law-enforcement personnel in Iowa and Nebraska. The investigation determined that the girlfriend caused the injuries, so the abuse was "founded." Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) documents show that she told CPS that she would appeal the ruling, saying she loved the boys and would never do anything to harm them. In a separate interview, the father said that he and his girlfriend would appeal additional abuse and neglect rulings.
Iowa DHS documents record a startling list of incidents at the father's home in just a couple of years: Among many, the father pressed on the wheelchair-bound twin's nose until it bled, resulting in a founded-abuse determination. On another occasion, the dad poured hot sauce down that boy's throat while the girlfriend pressed her elbow into his neck to ensure he swallowed it. The girlfriend once sent the teen shopping alone in his wheelchair. He got lost and tipped off a curb, gashing his forehead (he is seen here, being stitched up). The incident resulted in another abuse and neglect finding for the father and his girlfriend.
A social worker recounts watching the father smash a sandwich onto the blind boy's forehead, purportedly to get him to eat his lunch. One day, Eby dropped by her former spouse's home in Iowa to visit her sons and discovered that the blind child had two black eyes and swelling around his face and head (as seen at top). The boy hadn't been to a doctor; when he finally did go, Eby recalled, the doctor said he couldn't suggest the cause of the injuries because they were already healing.
Social workers describe quasi-military discipline in the home, with punishments including cold showers. "I'm trying to instill values like honor, loyalty and courage in my children," the father said. "If that's wrong, then a lot of parents are wrong."
Judy Yellowbank, who is Winnebago and the program director at Four Directions Community Center, likened the twins' treatment to torture. She charged that there's a double standard in child welfare. "Native parents would be behind bars if they had committed the child abuse and neglect that these two white caregivers have," Yellowbank said.
Following the CPS investigation, Iowa DHS recommended returning the twins to their father, and in October 2013, an Iowa district court judge issued an arrest warrant for Eby. She is trapped between the laws of two states and fearful for her son's safety.
For the full story, including how it's playing out and background on the difficulties Native people may face when they become involved with the child welfare system, visit Indian Country Today Media Network, where the report first appeared.