33 years On, This Father Still Fights For His Daughter After Shocking Diagnosis

Pierre Van Zylparenting

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little girl didn't come home from the hospital

There’s nothing a parent won’t do for their child.

Some say that phrase, or some form of it, as a given fact. They believe a parent’s love is unconditional, but they don’t explore that concept further. On the flip side, those with harsh childhoods might dispute these claims. However, the story of this father’s fight for his disabled daughter restores faith in the concept of unlimited parental love. Russel Milne battled for his daughter, Yoey, for 33 years.

Yoey’s Misdiagnosis

Yoey Milne’s life was difficult, and her challenges began soon after she was born.

In 1984, Yoey was suffering from severe malnourishment. The doctors at the Royal Brisbane Children’s Hospital told her parents that their daughter had a rare genetic disease causing this and they did not expect her to live much longer.

Mr. Milne was managing a farm on Queensland’s Darling Downs and was sending the money home. He was the family’s only income and was unaware of how unwell his baby had become while he was away. The doctors informed him that her disease had affected the mitochondria in her cells. 

Milne and his wife took Yoey home, dressed her in a little dress from her mother’s wedding gown, and brought her to church to be christened. They were bracing themselves for the worst, but Milne had refused to give up. “I said, ‘No I’m not going to let her die’.”

He arranged Yoey’s admission to the Sydney Children’s Hospital. After a few days, the medical staff claimed the source of her illness was not from genes, but abuse. It was at this time that Yoey’s mother was diagnosed with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a condition where a caregiver purposely makes the child sick for attention. Today it is known as Factitious disorder imposed on another (FDIA).

When Yoey was separated from her mother, the baby began to gain weight.

Milne was appalled. He had no idea this had been going on. Later he learned that Yoey’s condition could have also been a result of her Smith-Magenis syndrome, which she was diagnosed with much later in life.

Into Foster Care

After the mother’s Munchausen diagnosis, Yoey and her sibling were placed in foster care. Thus, began three decades of Mr. Milne fighting for his daughter’s return.

Although there was no evidence connecting Milne to his daughter’s mistreatment, he was penalized for failing to notice his wife’s abusive behavior. Milne battled to prove his capabilities as a father and won in 1986. He abandoned his job at the farm to start a life of paperwork, courts, and government departments to get his kids back.

“I remember in those days I would write everything on a typewriter and if you got one letter or word wrong, they’d send it back to you and you’d have to do it all over again,” he said.

He spent two weeks in an in-house program run by Montrose Child Protection Centre so they can analyze his parenting abilities. “Then they went through me with a fine-tooth comb,” he remembered.

The two weeks were worth the struggle: he gained custody of his oldest child and the third who was born during this grueling process. However, Yoey remained in the foster care system, in a home with seven other children.

“I still to this day don’t know why she wasn’t sent to Montrose to be with me,” Milne said. [1]

Yoey was two when she began developing symptoms of autism, epilepsy, and other delays attributed to her malnourishment as an infant. She was apparently settled with her foster family.

Around this time, Milne left his wife and moved to Tasmania to care for his other two children. He refused to give up his fight for Yoey. He saw his daughter once in 1991 and continued to send letters to the government, pleading for her return. He received no responses. Without any news, he feared that Yoey may have died.

“We kept sending stuff but we never got any reply. I made her a jumper. They just cut us off,” Milne said. He felt hopeless. [2]

“Yoey Isn’t Dead”

When Yoey turned 16, her foster parents placed her in a New South Wales group home. Meanwhile, her father had started to rebuild his life. He became a high school art teacher, remarried, and had two more kids with his new wife.

Then a phone call came from the government that told Milne that Yoey wasn’t with the foster family anymore. She was alive.

“I started swearing at them,” said Milne. “Then they hung up. Then I had to start researching how to get her home.”

In 2002, he resumed his battle for Yoey. Milne wanted his daughter back.

He got a letter from Yoey’s file written by the psychiatrist who had diagnosed Milne’s first wife in the 80s. The psychiatrist claimed to have examined Milne as well, and wrote, “I felt that at the very least he was complicit in the abuse.”

These fateful words could have been the reason why Milne was not allowed to care for Yoey. Meanwhile, he never met this doctor who seemed ignorant of the neglect and had fused it with actual physical mistreatment.

Father and Daughter Reunited

After four years of fighting, Milne and Yoey were finally reunited. She was 22.

Milne visited the group home where she lived in western Sydney and was horrified by what he saw.

“It was like a prison — keys everywhere. All these holes in the walls,” he said. “There were four people there who shouldn’t have been together and it set Yoey off all the time.” He was previously under the impression that the government was providing his daughter one-to-one care.

His happiness to meet his daughter was marred by her surroundings. He started lobbying to get Yoey into a better group home, and won.

He was also allowed to take Yoey to the beach. It was her first time ever seeing it. 

“She wouldn’t get out of the water,” Milne said. “I was just amazed how they’d never taken her to the beach before.”

Yoey’s Abuse Continued

Milne spent thousands on lawyers and requests to gain access to Yoey’s files, which he finally received in 2007. On the top of the box of documents was a brown envelope containing details of a sexual assault on a twelve-year-old Yoey while she was in a respite center without her foster parents.

“Someone obviously had a conscience and had put this at the top of the pile,” Milne said. “I was just astounded.”

He made inquiries but no one knew about the assault. No one had reported it to the police. Milne took the file to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Despite his excellent lawyers, they did not get the outcome they wanted. Since Yoey was disabled and couldn’t testify, the courts refused to prosecute.

Milne did apply for funds from the redress scheme in the hopes that Yoey could use that money for a better future.

A New Diagnosis

During this time, Milne took Yoey to a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with Smith-Magenis syndrome based on her facial features associated with the disorder, a square face, broad nasal bridge, heavy brows, wide forehead, and upward slanting eyes. She also had the signs of what is described as failure to thrive (FTT), due to her malnourishment as a child. 

This made Milne wonder whether Yoey’s malnourishment was in part due to this syndrome as well, which would only compound her issues. This is because Infants who are affected by the syndrome can have feeding difficulties leading to FTT [4]. However, he does suspect that his first wife’s diagnosis Munchausen by proxy (FDIA) was accurate as well. 

Living with Disability

Yoey’s story is an example of the difficulties people with disabilities face. While her father continues to battle for her custody, he’s also petitioning for her group home to improve her living conditions and care.

Milne, who was accused of being an abusive father, has proved himself through his 33-year fight to keep his daughter in his life. Now he’s a father of seven, with each child being proof of his parenting abilities.

“They’re all healthy individuals and some of those children I had to raise as a sole parent in poverty and re-train as a teacher,” Milne said. “There’s nothing wrong with our family.”

Nothing except Yoey is missing from their home, 

“Yoey has been deprived of her family. It’s not the other way around,” Milne said. “She’s lived a life of hell.” [5]

He finds inspiration in his daughter’s resilience despite all she has gone through. This empowers him to continue fighting to bring her home. 

As for the rest of us, perhaps we can find inspiration in his resilience despite all he has gone through.

  1. Zoe Zaczek. Daily Mail. How woman was taken from her family and condemned to decades of suffering in foster homes because her mother STARVED her as a baby – but her father never stopped fighting to get her back https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7481961/Woman-misdiagnosed-rare-disease-child-really-STARVED-mother.html September 19, 2019
  2. Father’s fight against all odds to win back his daughter. News Corp Australia. https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/fathers-fight-against-all-odds-to-win-back-his-daughter/news-story/c7e7bb2a0242e2f578666af1fb497888 September 20, 2019
  3. Alison Branley. One man’s 33-year fight for his daughter takes him to second royal commission https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-09-19/disability-royal-commission-case-shows-decades-long-distress/11478366? September 19, 2019
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20301487
  5. NZ Herald. Father’s fight to win back his daughter back after shock diagnosis https://www.nzherald.co.nz/health-wellbeing/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501238&objectid=12269286 September 20, 2019

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