In 1977, Roy Meadow claimed to identify a phenomenon he called Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy. This referred to someone intentionally sickening someone in their care, then seeking medical attention for it. Since then, there have been some rare documented cases, but many more instances of unfounded accusations.
Most of the problem lies with the supposed identification signs. These include: 1. The patient’s mother having substantial medical knowledge for a lay person; 2. The mother being unenthused when the doctor informs her of a possible cure or mitigation. 3. An illness that is difficult to diagnose, with new symptoms periodically creeping up; 4. The mother questioning the doctor’s conclusions or challenging treatment options; 5. Changing doctors, especially more than once.
But these signs describe normal behavior for a mother whose baby has a rare, mysterious illness. This unexplained sickness will cause the mother to look for as much information as possible, a search that is much easier now than in 1977. Further, mysterious illnesses may lead to multiple unsuccessful attempts to diagnose and treat them. Hence, a mother who is told that we now know what is wrong may be hearing that for the fourth time, so the reaction may be less than complete joy. Moreover, the reason she has been going to doctors and hospitals for years is precisely because the disease cannot be pinned down. It is counterintuitive and cruel to use repeated trips to medical centers against her.
Before going further, a word on why I am using gender-specific language. Every false MSBP accusation I’ve come across was leveled at a woman. There may be a microscopic percentage of MSBP accusations thrown at fathers, but this is overwhelmingly suffered by mothers.
Mannie Taimuty-Loomis, who was falsely accused of the syndrome, told Psychology Today, “If it were the man demanding help, wanting to know more and wanting to be involved, no one would think anything of it. But when a mother displays the same characteristics, she’s deemed difficult to work with, overly interested, and very controlling.”
Taimuty-Loomis was a mother with medical knowledge, asking detailed, complex questions while moving from doctor to doctor trying to find the cause of her child’s unexplained illness. This was fertile ground for a MSPB accusation, and she temporarily lost custody of her children. Yet when her son died at age 3, it was learned it was from mitochondrial disease, which had manifested itself in an array of symptoms.
Once a mother is suspected, almost any action can be considered further evidence. While being challenging is one of the supposed signs, so too is seeming to want an intimate relationship with members of the medical staff. So if a mother seems to be seeking approval from nurses, that can be used against her, as can her being seemingly indifferent to them. Being overprotective can be seen as a sign, as can coming across as negligent. Acting calm can be considered evidence, as can being agitated. The same thing with being either congenial or confrontational.
Besides tormenting the falsely-accused mother, focusing on MSBP can also divert doctors from the hunt for the disease and cure. Julie Patrick had her son Phillip taken when doctors at Vanderbilt University suspected MSBP, when the child had actually been struck with a gastrointestinal illness. This was only discovered after his death at age 11 months. The confounding nature of the disease was very stressful to Patrick, whose constant questions and challenges were used as evidence of MSPB.
Loren Pankratz has seen this unfold many times. He is a psychologist who is regularly called to testify in cases involving MSPB accusations. He said there have been two cases he investigated where he concluded MSPB was happening. But there are other times, he said, where, “I have seen mothers accused of MSBP simply because physicians disagreed about the medical management of their child. It is vastly over-diagnosed.”
When a child is removed from the mother, it is partly in an attempt to see if the patient gets better. But this has limitations, as the illness may be subject to flare-ups or fluctuation. Pankratz considers the separation test unreliable since conditions can improve for a variety of reasons, including changes in medical treatment.
The first major backlash against this mass hysteria centered on UK lawyer Sally Clark. She was exonerated after being convicted of murdering her two sons who had died in infancy from unknown causes. Meadow testified the odds of this happening were one in 73 million, when the Royal Statistical Society found this to actually be one in 200.
An investigation revealed the babies had died of staphylococcus aureus. Clark was released but the trauma of the two deaths and a false imprisonment led her to drink herself to death. The Clark case was one of four that Meadow testified in that later resulted in the mother’s vindication. In view of that horrible record, Meadow now concedes that the diagnosis is made far too often.
In another case, though not involving a MSPB accusation, Russian immigrants Anna and Alex Nikolayev had their child seized for a few weeks for merely seeking a second opinion. There have been other cases like this, with Justina Pelletier’s being the most infamous. These abuses of power are somewhat common, as is the infiltration of pseudomedicine in hospitals. As such, I’m wondering if we’ll someday see children seized because their skeptic parents objected to a hospital treating their child’s hepatitis with Reiki.