For first time in her life, Beth Hane was separated from her parents
this May. Several police officers and an employee of the Allegheny County Children, Youth
and Families agency came to her family's South Hills home, forcibly removed the severely
disabled 11-year-old from her parents care and placed her in a foster home.
Beth has a chromosomal disorder called Trisomy 15, and suffers from epilepsy, weighs
just 32 pounds, and has only half a large intestine, and failing hearing and eyesight. She
was taken away 90 minutes after her new pediatrician called CYF and told officials that
the child was in imminent danger.
Beth's mother, the pediatrician claimed, was purposely hurting her daughter because the
mother suffered from a psychiatric disorder known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.
The Hanes' crisis was eerily similar to one that occurred with another family in
Nashville, Tenn., in September 1996.
In that case, authorities took away Mark and Julie Patrick's 11 month old son Philip.
From birth, Philip had suffered from multiple defects including a bowel disorder, fusion
of his skull bones and gastrointestinal problems, which had been treated with little
success at various hospitals. But at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville, doctors
reported the Patricks to police, accusing Julie Patrick of intentionally harming her son.
Julie Patrick was accused of having Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy. MSBP is a
little-understood and highly controversial condition. Doctors and others who believe in it
say it's a disorder in which a parent -usually the mother - intentionally harms her child
in order to gain attention for herself.
Detractors say that MSBP is either vastly overdiagnosed or doesnt exist at all.
More and more, they say, it is being improperly used as the basis for taking children away
from their parents.
The Hane and Patrick cases had very different outcomes. Beth was returned to her
parents after 11 weeks in foster care. Philip died in the hospital a month after being
separated from his parents.
A controversial condition
There is no consensus among doctors, child care professionals, lawyers and others
about Munchausen, even on what to call it. Also, referred to as Factitious Disorder by
Proxy and Pediatric Condition Falsification, it is not classified as a disorder in the
DSM-IV, the American Psychiatric Associations "bible" of mental
conditions, because of "insufficient information." The American Academy of
Pediatrics also has no policy on it.
But MSBP is included in the child-abuse guidelines published by the U.S. Department of
Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Many Pediatricians, child
protective services workers and even some FBI officials believe that MSBP is an illness
that not only is under-reported, but is increasing.
Arrayed against them is a growing number of attorneys, physicians and child advocacy
experts who claim that MSBP is a "disease dujour" that is not backed up by any
credible medical evidence.
Caught in the middle are scores of families whose lives have been irreparably damaged
by prison, the seizure of children and, in some cases, the children's deaths, all based on
the assertion of this mysterious malady.
MSBP has existed in medical literature only since 1977. The first reference to
"Munchausen" by name occurred in 1951, when a British doctor used the term to
describe obstreperous patients in postwar England who wandered from hospital to hospital,
exaggerating or falsifying their symptoms. He named the behavior after the 18th century
Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymus von Munchausen, a German soldier and adventurer known for
his hyperbolic tales.
In 1977, British Professor Roy Meadow wrote a brief article in the Lancet medical
journal about two cases of child abuse. He used the phrase "Munchausen syndrome by
Proxy" in his discussion of the cases to try to explain the behavior of the mothers
of the abused children. As Meadow described it, the mothers had created symptoms of
illness in their children and lied about the childrens medical histories, all in an
effort to discredit doctors treating the children, even though they were outwardly full of
praise for the physicians and their staffs.
Like the postwar patients, Meadow said, the mothers were trying to attract sympathetic
attention from doctors, but in this case were inducing or falsifying medical problems in
their children to get that attention.
"In these cases," he wrote in his 1977 article, "it was as if the
parents were using the children to get themselves into the sheltered environment of a
childrens ward surrounded by friendly staff."
Although Meadow identified MSBP, its touchstone over the years has been a series of
abusive incidents involving parents and their children, secretly recorded on videotape in
two British hospitals.
The videos, taken by professor David Southall between 1986 and 1994, showed 33 parents
apparently harming their children through suffocation, poisoning with disinfectant or
anticonvulsant drugs, and other types of physical and emotional abuse. Southall used the
videos as the basis for an article in "Pediatrics" magazine, which concluded
that "many parents appeared caring and kind in the presence of professionals, yet
within seconds of being alone with the child became cruel and sadistic."
Although criminal charges were brought against many of the, parents, several of the
charges subsequently were dropped by prosecutors for lack of evidence and because some of
the video footage was inconclusive.
Even if everyone agreed that MSBP is real, it would involve only a fraction of all
child abuse cases, according to figures used by its proponents. According to the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services, there were more than 465,000 substantiated cases
of child abuse in 1996, the last year for which figures are available. Dr. Randall
Alexander, a child-abuse expert and one of the foremost proponents of MSBP, estimates that
nationally between 500 and 1,000 cases of the syndrome occur each year. That means that
MSBP would account for between 0.1 and 0.2 percent. of the country's annual child abuse
In Allegheny County, there are no firm estimates of MSBP cases from pediatricians,
hospitals or CYF, the agency responsible for removing children from parents' custody. But
Dr. Basil Zitelli, a professor of pediatrics at Childrens Hospital and someone who
has testified as an expert witness in MSBP trials, said that "I do believe it's out
there to a much greater extent than we would like to believe."
No one disputes the fact that there are parents who intentionally harm their children.
The problem arises from trying to prove that the abuse occurs because of the psychological
motivations described by MSBP theorists.
Critics of the syndrome argue that it has been literally defined into existence by
virtue of the overwhelming amount of material written about it - more than 300 articles -
and not by any scientific studies that prove its existence.
Adolf Grunbaum, the Andrew W Mellon professor of philosophy at the University of
Pittsburgh and a research professor in the department of psychiatry at the university's
medical school, said the Munchausen trend reminds him of the claims made about hysteria by
French physician Jean-Martin Charcot in the 1890s.
After Charcot's patients at a Paris mental hospital had been hypnotized, they would
exhibit dramatic symptoms that didnt appear to have any medical cause - blindness
and paralysis for instance. Charcot called these patients "hysterics," and
concluded that hysteria was a proven medical disorder.
But later experts cast doubt on Charcot's work. Some said he had either made up the
patients' symptoms in his reports, or the patients had fabricated them. Even if some
patients showed the symptoms, Grunbaum said, "one has to be very careful in inferring
that a certain symptom set constitutes a genuine clinical entity."
In the same way, he said, just because some mothers may harm their children and claim
it's the result of the children being ill, that doesnt mean that their behavior
constitutes a medical syndrome.
Syndrome's new uses
Despite the relatively small number of cases, detractors of MSBP say the Munchausen
allegations are inflicting a growing amount of damage. They argue that the diagnosis is
being used to separate families by professionals who don't have to fear the consequences
of their accusations, because they are protected from legal liability under the federal
Good Faith Immunity Law, passed in 1977 to encourage teachers, doctors and others to
report suspected cases of child abuse.
In addition, health insurance fraud investigators now consider MSBP when investigating
potentially fraudulent medical disability claims. At least one company, Forensic
Intelligence Display and Analysis, Inc., describes symptoms Of MSBP parents for its
clients, which include law enforcement agencies, U.S. attorneys' offices, insurance
company claims managers and managed care physicians.
Some fathers' rights advocates have pushed the idea that making an MSBP allegation
against an ex-wife in a child custody case is an "instant win" tool. "I
have heard many men say, Turnabout is fair play. I'm going to knock her off with
that before she hits me with sexual abuse of the kids," said Kenneth R.
Pangbom, a Florida trial consultant. In other words, Pangborn said men who fear they will
be accused of abusing their children charge the mother with the syndrome first, putting
the burden on her to prove that she is not the abuser.
Munchausen also has been mentioned in connection with a recent trend in which county
coroners have reopened old cases of infant deaths that had no official cause or were
blamed on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Prosecutors have brought charges against several
women after these re-investigations, including a New York woman who was then convicted of
killing her five children.
But critics of MSBP say that while these mothers may have killed their children, there
often is no evidence that it had anything to do with the psychological motivations claimed
for Munchausens. Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht said he has no plans to
reinvestigate any infant death cases here.
Thats not science
One of the most vocal opponents of the Munchausen trend is Thomas M. Ryan, a
medical malpractice attorney in private practice in Chandler, Ariz. "There are no
scientific studies that prove [MSBPs] existence," he said. "You have
people saying, 'Gee, I've heard other people say mothers do suspicious things, so I'll
call it Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy."
"That's not science. That's merely reporting anecdotes."
Ryan is one of the leading defense attorneys for people accused of MSBP Often working
for free, he has persuaded the courts to overturn two guilty verdicts and has won
dismissals of allegations in four other cases. He said he consults with 30 to 40 women
annually who are accused of the syndrome and has volunteered more than 4,000 hours of his
time defending women. He estimates the cost of defending someone accused of MSBP can range
from $25,000 to $1 million.
"If a mother puts an inappropriate substance in a child, call it what it is: child
abuse," he said. "If a doctor suspects a mother is doing something to her child,
find out what she's doing, find out what to do to get her to stop and if you cant,
then report her."
In other words, Ryan said, most MSBP cases that involve real harm to children can be
handled as straight forward child abuse. But if MSBP is being alleged, Ryan said, there
often are ulterior motives for using the terminology.
In his experience the four leading situations in which the syndrome is cited are: (1)
When mothers have seriously disagreed with their childrens physicians; (2) When
mothers who use managed care organizations have children with difficult medical problems
who incur steep medical bills; (3) When there are custody disputes, where fathers allege
abuse by the mother. (4) When physicians raise the issue after they have been accused by a
family of malpractice.
Once in court, Ryan said, "the cases are difficult to win [for those accused of
the syndrome] because most juvenile court judges are afraid to rule against the state. It
is safer for them to separate the families than to run the risk of ending up on the front
page of the paper [if the child later is hurt or dies]."The question is, does the
medical evidence support the allegations? If it doesnt ... I guarantee the
mother will win [the case]. I've yet to be proven wrong."
One of Ryan's cases involved a 9-year-old California boy who was taken to the
University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center in early 1992 for treatment of the
chronic diarrhea he'd suffered since birth. Based on a single stool sample that showed the
presence of a laxative, plus the hospital's judgment that the boy's parents had
"doctor shopped" and neglected their sons educational, physical and
developmental growth, the parents were charged with MSBP. Based on that, child protective
workers declared the boy had been abused, and he was placed with an Illinois foster
Not until 1995 was the family reunited, when an Illinois circuit court found that there
was insufficient evidence of abuse or neglect and that UCLAs use of a single stool
sample was specious, especially considering that 15 other stool samples showed no
Not all women nurture
On the opposite side of the fence from Ryan is Dr. Herbert A. Schreier, chief of
psychiatry at the Childrens Hospital of Oakland, Calif. and co-author of
"Hurting for Love," a 1993 book that's considered by many to be the MSBP
Schreier, who has testified as an expert witness in about 30 MSBP cases and consulted
on another 70 to 80, said Ryan and others outspoken against MSBP have unfairly labeled him
as "antifeminist" because of his extensive work with MSBP and the fact that 95
percent of MSBP cases are brought against women.
But Schreier does think that many women afflicted by MSBP are unable to nurture their
children effectively. "The interesting part about [MSBP] is what this is telling us
about women," Schreier said. "We cant bring ourselves to see that all
women arent natural-born mothers. When you look at the history of most of these
women, either they felt undervalued in their family as little girls or they perceived
themselves as being abused."
These women then manipulate doctors as a kind of revenge for past humiliations at the
hands of adults, Schreier said. By making it appear that doctors are unable to help their
sick children, he said, the women "turn the tables." Schreier played a large
role in the development Of a "Profile" of MSBP offenders that many doctors and
child protection officials use.
The FBI's version of the profile cites these factors:
* The parent ("most often biological mothers of the victims") appears to be
very knowledgeable about the victim's illness.
* She has some medical education either through study or experience.
* She has an unusually close relationship with the hospital's medical staff, and
praises them excessively.
* She maintains a high degree of attentiveness to the victim.
Critics of the MSBP profile say that these factors could very well describe any highly
motivated mother who has a seriously ill child who requires a lot of medical treatment.
But Schreier said that even if a mother doesnt exhibit a single aspect of the
profile, she could still suffer from MSBP "There are many reasons for fabricating an
illness in a child," he said, including a lonely parent wanting to keep the child at
home, or one spouse "seeking revenge" on another.
Childrens Hospital's Zitelli admits there is no way to "test" for MSBP.
But he has his own profile that he says physicians and child protective services workers
can use to form an "index of suspicion' about a case.
Foremost, he said, is that the child's illness is factitious, or not genuine, as
evidenced by either reported or actual symptoms. Second is that the perpetrator offers no
information to physicians about how the child's illness occurred. The third clue is
repeated medical evaluations. The fourth is that the symptoms subside when the mother and
child are separated.
Yet Zitelli also urged caution in applying these criteria. I think any accusation of
child abuse has to be very carefully investigated," Zitelli said. "It's
incumbent upon [child protective workers] to investigate thoroughly those situations in
which someone has been accused of Munchausen [Syndrome] by Proxy."