By the time Cora was 8 years old, she took 6 different medications everyday. She saw 11 different doctors to monitor her conditions. And she slept every night attached to a machine to monitor her breathing. But, when she was admitted to the hospital, doctors could not find anything wrong with her.
Cora was healthy, but she was an unfortunate victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy is named after Munchausen syndrome. This is a mental disorder where a person complains of fake symptoms or an illness to gain attention from being a patient (factitious disorder).
But, with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, the perpetrator (usually a parent or caregiver) creates false medical problems in a child. The victims are usually preschool-age children who cannot speak up for themselves. It is a form of physical and/or emotional abuse. This disorder is dangerous because the child can be seriously injured or even killed. An overwhelming majority of perpetrators are mothers who lie, exaggerate, or even cause symptoms in their own child.
In one case, a mother gave her daughter a substance to cause asthma attacks. Other perpetrators have given medications that cause vomiting or seizures. These people may also willingly allow a child to undergo risky surgeries to treat false conditions. If confronted by a doctor, the perpetrators deny any wrongdoing. However, the child gets better when the perpetrator is not around.
Commonly, the parent or caretaker will receive sympathy from friends and family. Sometimes, church groups or community groups praise them for their selfless duty to the sick child. Of course, to keep the praise coming, the lies must continue. Thus, the children suffer.
Treatment usually involves removal of the child from the perpetrator. This is followed by intensive individual and family therapy. While eventually reuniting the child and family is always a goal, treatment of abusing parents may not be successful. The perpetrator may have to give up parental rights.
If you suspect a child is in a situation where a caretaker is inducing illness, it is important to inform law enforcement or a child protection agency. If you are worried about the consequences of making such a call, you can do so anonymously.
While Cora thrived in the hospital, her mother could not accept this. Cora was later sent to foster care. She returned to school, made new friends, and stayed healthy, requiring only routine follow-up with a doctor.
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Factitious Disorder. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated November 30, 2015. Accessed April 26, 2016.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated April 28, 2014. Accessed April 26, 2016.
Munchausen by proxy syndrome. Nemours Kids Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/general/sick/munchausen.html. Updated August 2015. Accessed April 26, 2016.
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Last reviewed April 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 6/3/2014