Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy

Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy

In the 1990s, two unrelated mothers living in different parts of the United States had a lot in common. Both cared for children with significantly complex medical problems. One woman's daughter suffered from constant intestinal problems, and the other woman's two foster daughters experienced a multitude of ailments that left them weak and emaciated. In addition, both women spent most of their time escorting their sickly girls from doctor to doctor. The daughter of the first mother was eventually hospitalized 200 times, and all three children had to undergo surgery to place feeding tubes into their stomachs. Furthermore, both parents received national praise for their motherly care and devotion to their young girls. Prosecutors maintain that both women shared one more feature, a dark secret eventually exposed to television and newspapers around the world. They were accused of exhibiting symptoms of a bizarre psychiatric ailment called Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP) that led them to fabricate the girls' illnesses to fulfill their own needs for attention and sympathy.

Munchausen syndrome was named after an 18th century dignitary named Baron von Munchausen who was known for telling exaggerated stories. Individuals who exhibit the characteristics of Munchausen syndrome fabricate or exaggerate illness or sickness, usually for the purpose of attracting attention to themselves. Munchausen syndrome by proxy is the practice of fabricating or exaggerating illness or sickness onto another person, usually a child. MSBP is a form of child abuse and can prove fatal. Children subjected to this form of abuse may be hospitalized repeatedly and undergo numerous surgeries.

Researchers first began to recognize this pattern of abuse in the 1970s. Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) became the default judgement when no cause of death could be identified. Further, several cases where multiple children from the same family perished were attributed to SIDS because of no apparent causes of death. As research on SIDS progressed, the likelihood of a family experiencing multiple infant deaths due to SIDS became unlikely. On the eve of this realization in the 1970s, MSBP became a routinely published topic highlighting its terrible effects on children. Law enforcement personnel have become important players in the fight against MSBP because their position enables them to recognize the affliction in its earliest stages.

Read the rest of this article on the law enforcement issues and Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, please see the U.S. Department of Justice web site. (scroll down to page 21).

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