The Toll of Munchausen by Proxy Abuse—a personal reflection by the “other” parent

Our suspicions about Munchausen by proxy/medical child abuse began when my young son, Sam, came for his first Christmas visit since he had moved to Anchorage with his mother, Amy. Amy and I were divorced. Sam was six years old.

Amy had warned us that Sam was suffering from a range of illnesses, including kidney stones, a blood parasite, and bowel problems. She claimed that Sam had struggled to gain weight. But when he arrived, he seemed in good health. A little thin, maybe, but many kids are thin at that age, and he was happy the entire time he stayed with me in Seattle.

When summer arrived, I flew to Alaska to attend one of Sam’s soccer games. He played very well, which did not surprise me. Sam was a very active child, and attended all sorts of after school activities. However, when I returned to Seattle with Sam, I found two bottles of pills in his suitcase. They were labeled as vitamins. I thought this was strange, since I had not been informed of any pills sent with Sam. I decided not to give them to him. I did not know what they were for, and as they appeared to be adult-sized pills, I could not imagine why Sam might need them.

Amy refused to let Sam come down for Christmas that year, and she painted a disturbing picture of his health over the phone. She claimed that Sam had a rare form of kidney disease called Nutcracker syndrome. He had passed stones, and had fatty tissue tumors in one kidney. He apparently still had a blood parasite. I was shocked when Amy later informed me that Sam was soon to be scheduled for surgery. She went into vivid detail about the procedure, and I remember her happiness and excitement as she described what would be done to our son. To raise the $7,000 needed for the co-pay, she had organized a soccer fundraiser and a charity auction. She did not want me involved with the payment. In fact, Amy insisted that I had harmed Sam. She had spoken a lot about Sam’s nephrologist in Alaska, and how concerned he had become about the tumors inside his kidney. The doctor, she claimed, was very angry with me for allowing Sam to gain weight while in our care, because rapid weight gain was dangerous for children with Nutcracker syndrome. But what kind of doctor would be upset about a child gaining weight? I felt that none of what she was saying added up.

How could Sam be so healthy while in my care, but so sick when with his mother? I came to the realization that this was more than just Amy trying to get attention and sympathy from us. Things finally “clicked” when one evening, a story came on the television about “Munchausen by proxy.”. I had never heard of this kind of abuse before. As the story unfolded, I started to question myself. Could the diagnosis explain all the inconsistencies we had been experiencing? “Munchausen by proxy” seemed to fit. Amy had always struggled to maintain long-lasting friendships and relationships because of her need for attention. When we divorced, she told all sorts of lies about me to our friends and family. I was shocked to hear that she had described me as an alcoholic, and Sam as a child “born out of rape.” Sam once asked me, “Why does my mom lie so much?”

I started to think back on everything I had been told over the past several years concerning Sam’s health. I made notes. I was scared at this point, and could not sleep. My heart was racing. I started calling around to get medical records from Alaska. I called Sam’s pediatrician and found out that he had been seen by several other doctors at several hospitals in that area. He had missed a lot of school to attend these appointments. The pediatrician’s notes were a web of lies. Amy had deceived every single doctor she had come into contact with, starting with Sam’s obstetric history. She claimed that Sam almost died at birth from pneumonia, and that she had found blood in his urine since he was two years old.

I had to see Sam. I was scared, shocked, and overwhelmed with emotion. When he finally came to Seattle, I was appalled at what I saw – a very skinny boy with dry, chapped lips. I had to fight back tears. I saw Amy talk to Sam about an upcoming appointment at the Children’s Hospital, and the “jelly stuff they would put on his tummy.” Sam asked if he was going to be put to sleep, like he had been before. Amy said no. When we were alone, I asked Sam what had been done to him at the hospital. He replied, “You don’t want to know.” I was going to leave it at that, but he began to explain that he had “it” done twice, and that it was painful. I asked him where it had hurt. He pointed to his private area, and said, “Down there.”

I decided to accompany Sam to the Children’s Hospital the next week. The appointment was for an ultrasound followed by a consultation with the hospital urologist. During the ultrasound, Amy became very controlling. She insisted on positioning Sam on the table herself, even though there was already a technician present to take care of this. While she was busy fussing over Sam, the technician leaned towards me and whispered, “He’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with him.” We heard the same from the urologist later that day. He explained to us that the tests looked good, and that it did not appear that Sam had Nutcracker syndrome. The “symptoms” reported by Amy throughout the years seemed to be unrelated, and surgery was not needed. I was overjoyed that the doctor understood that nothing was wrong with Sam, but Amy did not take the news well. She began crying, and complained about all of the money she had raised for the procedure. She pointed her finger at the urologist’s face and accused him of having wasted her time. Sam became visibly upset. He grabbed his right side, walked over to Amy, and moaned “It hurts, my side, it hurts.” This was a surreal moment for me to watch. It was Sam’s left kidney that was supposed to be damaged.

A few days after this appointment, a pediatrician I had consulted in Seattle advised us to take legal action to obtain custody of Sam. I met with an attorney, and hired someone to serve Amy the court papers. The order was for temporary full custody. Any visits between Amy and Sam would have to be approved by me first, and they could be supervised if I wished. The papers also included a restraining order against Sam leaving Washington State and a declaration from the Child Protection Team at the Children’s Hospital.

Our day in court came. In her declaration, Amy had told all sorts of lies – especially about my character. She said that I was neglectful for not paying enough attention to Sam’s health, and that she and I had divorced because I had a drinking problem. Her attorney twisted Sam’s medical history with all sorts of lies, and further discredited me as a father. Worst of all, Sam’s pediatrician in Alaska wrote a declaration stating no concerns about Amy, and as a result, the commissioner decided that there was not enough evidence to proceed to trial. At this point, I knew that the system had failed our son. He would not be safe, and my worst nightmare would continue.

When I told Sam that he would be returning to Alaska, he burst into tears, yelling that he did not want to go back there. He was hysterical. I knew then that I had to do everything humanly possible to save my son from abuse. This was my job as his father – I needed to fight for him. Luckily, when I filed for a reconsideration of our case with the court, an order was added to the parenting plan mandating Amy to notify us of all medical appointments arranged for Sam, or be held in contempt. I really believe that this helped. Sam soon put on weight, and became much happier. His doctors informed me that he was attending far fewer appointments than he had been previously. Amy stopped describing “symptoms” to me over the phone.

Fourteen years have passed since all of this began. My relationship with Sam has been a constant struggle. After our dispute in court, Amy took advantage of the distance between us. She drilled lies into his head daily. For instance, she told Sam that I was a drug addict, and that I lived liked “trailer trash” in the woods. Although the worst was over for Sam, it took him a long time to see himself as the healthy boy he was. One time, after speaking with Amy on the phone, Sam told me, “Dad, I’m probably going to be sick tomorrow.” He never explained what he meant by this. Another time, Sam suffered a bee sting that took months to heal because he kept picking at it. He was eager to show it to me, and he seemed to be looking for attention. I had read about the “sick role” in my research about Munchausen by proxy, and it worried me to think that this was what Sam wanted.

Sam is 20 now, and I see signs of our relationship improving. I have never spoken to him about the abuse, however. What would be the cost of telling him? How would it benefit him to know what happened? Would he even believe me? Someday I may tell him, but for now we will let it be.

It is absolutely devastating to me to know that Sam was used as a pawn for attention and money. He was betrayed by the one woman who was supposed to protect him in life. I still cannot wrap my head around that.

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