Hannah Milbrandt was seven years old when she was told that she was going to die. Her mother, Teresa, had said that she had acute lymphocytic leukemia, and mere months to live. Predictably, Hannah was terrified, but she struggled on. Her bravery was the talk of her small hometown of Urbana, Ohio. Life could be cruel – an unavoidable tragedy for an innocent child.
Even more cruel, however, was the truth: Teresa had made the whole thing up. She wanted her daughter to be a model of dignity and strength in the community—and herself as a model caregiver. She had disfigured Hannah by shaving her hair, fitting her with bandages, and forcing her to wear surgical masks, hats, and wigs. Strangely, the masks were placed over Hannah’s mouth but not her nose. Publicly, Teresa claimed that Hannah looked this way because she was undergoing chemotherapy. In reality, she drugged Hannah with sleeping pills so that she would appear sickly and fatigued
Often, Hannah would go to sleep for hours under the influence of the sedatives given to her by her mother. When she woke up, Teresa would tell her that she had “slept through” a chemotherapy session. These sessions never took place. Thousands rallied around Teresa and her husband, Robert. Their local church raised $7,000 in donations for the family, who they believed were spending $500 each week on medical bills. The Urbana firefighters gave Hannah a puppy and a free trip to a water park – two things she desperately wished for in the months she had left to live. The staff at North Elementary school organized a “hat shower” where all the kids wore hats in support of their sick friend.
Tragically, one child who was actually seriously ill heard about Hannah’s fight against cancer and sold her entire soda-can tab collection for the cause. This girl, who was wheelchair-bound, had spent nine years collecting the tabs to help pay for her own medical care. Teresa spent much of her contribution on bingo cards and lottery tickets – along with the rest of the funds raised for Hannah, which exceeded $30,000.
Nine long months passed before Teresa’s lies began to unravel. Concerns were first raised when one of the teachers at North Elementary noticed that Hannah’s hair was cut very evenly. People who undergo chemotherapy usually lose their hair in patches. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services was contacted, and an investigation began.
That Christmas, Hannah begged Santa Claus to spare her from cancer. In a way, her wish was granted. Teresa was arrested in January, and promptly confessed, bringing the deception – finally – to an end. She spent six and a half years in prison for theft and child endangerment. The abuse, Teresa would later claim, had been her desperate attempt to keep her husband from leaving following several bitter arguments.
The police also arrested Robert, charging him with endangering a child, theft, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, and possession of criminal tools. They were sure that Robert always knew that his daughter had not had leukemia. He was accused of colluding with Teresa in the emotional and physical abuse of their little girl.
Really, Robert had very little knowledge of what was going on. He deferred almost all facets of child-rearing to his wife, who dominated the household. Most of his time was spent at the printing press, where he worked long hours as a supervisor. The company’s Human Resources Department had described Robert’s commitment to his job during his daughter’s apparent illness as “pretty amazing.” Teresa scheduled Hannah’s medical appointments and fund-raisers to coincide with Robert’s travel for work.
Robert actually administered precious little care to Hannah over the course of her alleged illness. There was no indication that he ever gave Hannah anything other than animal-shaped multivitamin tablets. He did not give her the sleeping pills, which came in the form of a blue pill. Admittedly, Robert had cut Hannah’s hair, but only after having been told by Teresa – bizarrely – that this would help the chemotherapy to work better. He was medically naïve and went along blithely.
Even Teresa’s first husband supported Robert when interviewed by the police. He explained that Teresa was “an outstanding actress who will make you believe what she wants you to believe.” Fooling Robert, in his view, would be “a mild thing compared to things I’ve seen her do.” Teresa was eleven years older than Robert and had been married three times before.
Many of Robert’s behaviors were completely inconsistent with Teresa’s hoax. Robert was observed to be unappreciative when his co-workers donated money to Hannah’s care. He did not want to be reminded of his daughter’s imminent death, and rebuffed pressure from Teresa to appear in a newspaper article. The little free time Robert had was spent researching cancer information on the Internet – in particular, complementary treatments such as herbalism. His online activity far exceeded what would be needed to simply sound knowledgeable about his daughter’s “diagnosis.”
Teresa herself insisted that Robert did not have anything to do with her hoax, and appeared irritated by his lack of involvement all along. She had been trying to plan for Hannah’s not dying by telling him that Hannah was getting better.
Unfortunately, the evidence against Robert appeared damning—even to his attorney—and so in the end, he pleaded “no contest.” He served four years and eleven months in prison. This outcome devastated Hannah, who, after all she had been through, now had to cope with being separated from her father, who she had known to be innocent the whole time.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy is a factitious disorder where an individual fabricates or exaggerates mental or physical health problems in the person for whom he or she cares. The primary motive is to gain attention or sympathy. Unlike Munchausen syndrome, the deception involves not themselves, but someone under the person’s care.
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