Why Did County Take Kids From Loving Couple?
Foster Mom Alleged to Have Mental Disorder
Called 'Flavor of Month'

By: Cheryl Romo
LA Daily Journal Staff Writer

With one exception, Lee Henry and his wife of 30 Years, Rachelle, haven’t seen the drug babies they raised from birth since the Department of Children and Family Services came and took them away last year after a court psychologist diagnosed the foster mother as suffering from Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

The Henrys’ congenial grandparents whose own four children are grown, had been licensed foster care providers and legal guardians for medically fragile kids for the last dozen years. "Our children represent children that our society has turned their back on and thrown away. Over half of them were never expected, or supposed, to survive. "These children were brought to us by LA County to die. That was their agenda. It was not mine," said Rachelle Henry.

Today, the family has been shattered even though the legal and medical communities continue to haggle about whether "factitious disorder by proxy - better known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy - exists or whether it is a new "flavor of the month" mental disorder being over zealously targeted by child welfare authorities.

Serious Impairment
The eight foster children in the Henry home ranged in age from 3 to 12. All were born drug-addicted and with serious medical problems that ran the gamut from AIDS to cerebral palsy. Most had been diagnosed as mentally retarded and had a variety of other physical and emotional problems as well. The kids were cared for under the supervision of doctors and mental health Professionals at facilities like Children's Hospital Los Angeles and Loma Linda University.

Some of these kids became what the Henrys call walking miracles. "These children were blooming, not all of them but some of them. "They can walk and talk and they have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of some experts," said the foster mother.

The Henry family's problems began in mid-1995 when they moved from their long-time home in Pomona to Lancaster and were assigned a new DCFS social worker for their youngest foster child. From the beginning, they contend, there was a personality conflict with this worker. Rachelle Henry admits that she is sometimes assertive, but she doesn't apologize for being a strong advocate for children.

Medical Emergency
The child the social worker was supervising - a little girl exposed in the womb to heroin and cocaine, and who had been diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia, autism and who was born HIV-positive had a medical emergency at her preschool. 'The 3-year-old was taken to Antelope Valley Hospital, where pediatrician Gerard G. Edralin, who had never seen the child before, hospitalized her.

According to Juvenile Court records, the toddler "was hospitalized as a result of a detrimental condition, consisting of, but not limited to, dystonic reaction and abdominal pain, due to ingestion of psychotropic drugs Phenothiazine, Haldol and Tegretol." 'The girl was removed by DCFS from the Henry home in June 1996 and placed in another foster care facility.

Dependency Court Commissioner Robert Leventer, who has since transferred to delinquency court then ordered a psychological evaluation of the foster parents and the child. A panel psychologist interviewed the Henrys for less than two hours Nov. 5. No diagnostic testing was performed. The therapist diagnosed Rachelle Henry, 53, as suffering from factitious disorder by proxy. The evaluation was submitted to the court Nov. 10, 1996.

According to Dr. Donna A. Rosenberg, a physician with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and the C. Henry Kempe National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect, Munchausen syndrome by proxy is a form of child abuse wherein the mother falsifies illness in her child through the simulation and/or production of illness and presents the child for medical care, disclaiming knowledge as to the cause of the problem.

On Nov. 19,1996, after a series of court hearings with different dependency court bench officers, all the other children were removed from the Henry home based on the diagnosis in the foster parents' psychological evaluation and because the foster parents were accused of creating a "detrimental home environment."

In the meantime, the couple retains legal guardianship of the children, they have maintained their state foster care license and no criminal charges have been filed. The court has permitted visitation with the kids, but Rachelle Henry said they have only been able to locate one of the girls. DCFS threw up obstacles so we couldn't see or find the children," she said.

The children's cases have all been consolidated by the Juvenile Court. And although Superior Court Judge John L Henning has scheduled a trial in January, the Henrys do not believe it will happen. They say their telephone and faxed messages to their court-appointed attorneys are not returned. (The dependency court attorneys, Adam S. Reed and John O'Kane, both declined to comment for this article.) The Henrys also say they have not been notified of, or given any information about, two preliminary hearings that were to have been held this fall.

Like many parents who have yet to have their day in dependency court the Henrys say they are in limbo. In addition to losing the children, they lost their Lancaster home and have moved to San Bernardino County. At 70, Lee Henry has returned to work in the construction industry. Rachelle Henry is unemployed. They're angry and they're bitter. "We’ve spent the last year in a hell hole," she said.

DCFS social workers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, contend that the psychologist's diagnosis of the foster mother is wrong. They described the atmosphere in the Henry home as warm and loving. "The children were given the utmost treatment and love and it was not artificial in my opinion," said one. "She did not make those children sick."

Another DCFS social worker, who had been assigned to oversee children in the Henry home for nearly a decade, said he "received a phone call and was told all the children were being pulled without any input from me... Mrs. Henry loved those kids a lot and I didn't have no problems with that lady," he said. "The judge never subpoenaed me. They took the case from me and put another worker on it."

A supervising social worker, who arrived with law enforcement to pick up the children from the Henry home, said she couldn’t figure out what she was doing there. We have to make quick assessments in a short amount of time and I didn't perceive wrong there... I couldn't say [Rachelle Henry] was neglectful or unfit. I didn't see any neglect. It seemed to me she was taking real good care of them." Of the children, she said: "These children had no hopes and no futures. They were far past medical treatment. One little girl was, I’ll never forget it, like a slug."

Likewise, more than a dozen medical professionals, who treated the chronically ill youngsters over the years, have stepped forward to support the family. One example is a letter, dated July 31, 1996, from Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. It is signed by Dr. Joseph A. Church, head of the division of clinical immunology and allergy; Dr. Ronald M. Ferdman, division of clinical immunology and allergy; and Karin Robbins, M.S.W., social worker.

It reads in part "Ms. Henry is responsible for the care of very sick children. These children have multiple medical and emotional problems which require intense, ongoing, and complex interventions. Ms. Henry has been diligent in her attention to prescribed medical regimens and to the medical follow-up of her children under our care. She has never falsely claimed any condition to us that did not exist in the children."

Interestingly, another letter is from the attending pediatrician at Antelope Valley Hospital who treated the first child removed from the Henry home, the little girl whose condition was cited as the main reason for removing all the other foster children. Dr. Edralin states that he sent a report to DCFS and spoke to a DCFS representative by telephone in June 1996. He said he informed the agency that the child in question showed "no evidence" of ingesting any medication.

"You can't imagine how utterly appalled and disturbed I was when I received a copy of the Juvenile Court petition which stated, in effect that [the child] was taken away from the home of her legal guardian, Rachelle A Henry, because it was thought that [she] had ingested Phenothiazine, Haldol, and Tegretol. This is an utter falsehood, and whoever made these irresponsible statements is either a complete idiot or else is trying desperately to damage the name and reputation of Mrs. Henry," wrote Edralin.

J. Schuyler Sprowles, a spokesperson for DCFS, said Thursday that he was unfamiliar with the Henry case and the department had no comment.

Attorney Tom Ryan, considered the leading legal expert on Munchausen syndrome by proxy in the country, said there is no known psychological test that can diagnose the illness and, therefore, he is highly suspect of a psychologist's diagnosis of Rachelle Henry. "It is a clinical diagnosis and that means you have to have an admission from the mom or evidence that she is doing it to gain attention from the medical community," he said.

Ryan, a sole practitioner based in Chandler, Ariz., has represented a number of women accused of Munchausen syndrome by proxy and is currently part of the legal team bidding for a new trial for Yvonne Eldridge, a Contra Costa foster mother who was convicted of willful cruelty toward infants in her care. Of the Henry case, he said: "It would seem this is about as bone-headed a case as it comes. There has got to be another issue as to why the county took these children that they are not willing to admit."

The attorney said allegations of Munchausen syndrome arise "when a mother with a chronically ill child advocates for her child. It’s an effective way to get rid of a pesky mother." The diagnosis is becoming more common, he said, and it is often used in response to charges of medical malpractice or in custody battles. Dismissing the recent legal claims as. "Twinkie stuff," Ryan said he has "yet to see a real case."

Others do not agree. Tom Lyon, an associate professor of law at the University of Southern California, said what’s different about people who actually have the disorder is that outwardly the parent seems caring and thrives on the attention and the drama of having a near fatally ill child. "You have a parent who is extremely concerned about the child's care and is knowledgeable about medical procedures," said Lyon, a former dependency court trial attorney. 'This is not a neglectful parent."

What makes the Henry case unique, he added, is that "typically people in child protection are only too willing to see abuse in every situation. But in Munchausen, everything is different. You have a parent who is extremely concerned about the child's care and is knowledgeable about medical procedures. Look at the mother ... She's an angel. Social workers, could be taken in by this mother."

A number of legal and medical experts said that while Munchausen by proxy isn't common, the news media's reporting of it is becoming common. Medical professionals interviewed for this article went so far as to say that the disorder is on the verge of becoming psychology's "flavor of the month" - a flavor, some said, that has begun to permeate the consciousness of child welfare officials and judges.

"Munchausen by proxy is a phenomenon. ...It’s a bit like road rage," said San Francisco psychiatrist Mark Levy. Canadian psychologist Tana Dineen agreed and asked: "How do you defend yourself against such an allegation?" Another psychologist, who asked to remain unidentified, said that "everybody has some personality disorder in some sense. But this sounds like some kind of designer thing."

However, Munchausen syndrome by proxy is included in the current child abuse guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Among the warnings for child abuse investigators is to beware of a mother who spends "a good deal of time on the hospital ward with the child and exhibits a remarkable familiarity with medical terminology."

Psychiatrist Levy said that while rare, true cases of Munchausen by proxy are a variation on depression in the mother. "It's self-esteem building for the mother. ...It's an attempt to create a situation where she is viewed as a healer," he said. "These mothers will go to incredible lengths to deny this - it’s almost delusional."

All the medical professionals, however, agreed on one thing. In the Henry case, they said, the verdict rests on the quality of the court-ordered psychological evaluation. The Daily Journal asked two clinical psychologists from outside Los Angeles County to do an evaluation of the Juvenile Court evaluation. The psychologists said that without diagnostic testing, the report was useless. "It’s junk," said one. San Francisco psychiatrist Levy also was asked to assess the evaluation. He reported that it would be impossible to make a good diagnosis from the document without spending more time with the mother and conducting sophisticated diagnostic testing.

"What’s complicated here is that things that are medical are being mixed with bad politics [in the report]," Levy said. "That may make her obnoxious, but certainly not factitious."

Is Munchausen by Proxy the
'Good Mother Syndrome"?

Although it is difficult to find good statistics on how many cases of factitious disorder by proxy (commonly called Munchausen syndrome by proxy) are reported in the United States each year, it is clear that the majority of the alleged Perpetrator's are women and that they are described as "good mothers."

The first clinical description of the syndrome about a mother who intentionally harms her child to gain attention for herself was published by a British pediatrician in 1977. And one of the classic legal cases involved a Marin County mother who was convicted in 1981 of murdering one of her two adopted children and endangering the other after deliberately putting a sodium mixture in the children's food. People v. Phillips, 122 Cal. App.3d 69 (1981).

A big embarrassment for prosecutors, however, was the 1991 case of a Jefferson County, Mo., woman. Patricia Stallings was convicted of murdering her 3-month old son by feeding him from a baby bottle laced with antifreeze. After the mother was imprisoned, she gave birth to another child with the same rare genetic disorder that killed her son. Stallings was released.

Another California case is that of Yvonne Eldridge, a Contra Costa County foster mother who was once honored by the Reagan White House for her work with kids. EIdridge, who cared for medically fragile children, was convicted in 1996 of willful cruelty toward the foster children in her care. Eldridge is currently seeking a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel. People v. Eldridge, 05-942154-6.

One of the leading medical experts on the disorder is Herbert A Schreier, the chief of psychiatry at Children's Hospital in Oakland. He is the co-author, with pediatric psychologist Judith A Libow, of a 1993 book called "Hurting for Love: Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome. "Schreier, who often testifies on behalf of the prosecution, said one reason these cases are so difficult to diagnose and prosecute is that "the mothers are unbelievably convincing. "They appear to be very good mothers."

But the inevitable backlash has begun. A national organization called MAMA (Mothers Against M.S.B.P. Allegations) now has close to 200 members. The group is based in Mississippi and was founded by Mark and Julie Patrick, whose baby son died in 1996. Julie Patrick was accused by hospital officials of having Munchausen by proxy. On Oct. 6, the couple filled a federal medical malpractice and civil rights lawsuit against the hospital. Patrick v. Vanderbilt University, 3-97-1032 TAH (M.D. Tenn.). "People are making these allegations and parents are becoming paranoid," said Julie Patrick. "There is no evidence of abuse without evidence of abuse."

- Cheryl Romo

Copyright 1997 Daily Journal Corp. Posted with Permission. This file can not be downloaded from this page.


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