Many years ago I acted for a single mom who had an 8-year-old daughter. She retained me when her ex-husband filed an application seeking a change of custody from my client to him…not so unusual, right?
Wrong! This case was my first introduction to the mental illness called “Munchausen by proxy”, an insidious syndrome that experts say causes mothers, rarely fathers, to exaggerate or fake their child’s health problems, or in the worst cases, deliberately harm or cause injury to their child.
The signs and signals that Munchausen may be present include:
• A child who is often hospitalized with unusual and unexplained symptoms that seem to go away when mother is not present, or a child who is moved by her caregiver from doctor to doctor and hospital to hospital.
• Symptoms that don’t match the child’s test results.
• Symptoms that worsen at home but improve while the child is under medical care.
• Drugs or chemicals in the child’s blood or urine.
• Siblings who died under strange circumstances.
• A mother who is overattentive to the child and overly willing to comply with health care workers.
• A mother who is a nurse or who works in the health care field.
Unfortunately, many friends, family, and medical experts who observe such symptoms have difficulty imagining that the child’s mother, who is overly protective, indeed, sacrificial in her care for her child, could intentionally harm her child.
Psychologists explain that the pay-off for the Munchausen mother is the fulfillment of her pathological need for attention and sympathy, something that the growth of social media exploits, with Facebook postings and mommy-blogs.
This week in White Plains, New York, jury selection began in the manslaughter trial of 29-year-old Lacey Spears, mother of 5-year-old Garnett-Paul Spears, who is accused of poisoning her son with sodium….that’s right, every day table salt.
Garnett-Paul’s sodium levels escalated, confounding his doctors at Westchester Medical Centre who tried desperately to control his brain swelling and seizures, and prevent his eventual death.
Meanwhile his mother used social media to regale her readers with details of Garnett-Paul’s tortuous medical journey, all the while preening and accepting accolades for her unstinting dedication to her sick son.
Ms. Spears was bedside at the hospital with her son, sleeping with him overnight, until he died. Prosecutors allege that she was continually depositing salt in his feeding tube.
His death is a terrible tragedy and one that experts say is rare, because Munchausen mothers don’t intend to kill their children, they simply want them to stay sick to feed their uncontrollable need for attention.
As for my client, her ex-husband was unable to prove that his daughter was a victim of Munchausen by proxy, although the circumstances were admittedly suspicious. I often wondered how that little girl fared and prayed for her for many years.
Not surprisingly, the medical literature indicates that the syndrome is difficult to investigate and prove, and often doctors are not willing to make the diagnosis for fear of being wrong. Better safe than sorry, I say.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang