Ever since the shocking, lurid, and heartbreaking story of Gypsy Rose Blancharde and her mother, Dee Dee, first hit the internet on BuzzFeed News in 2016, there has been a renewed fascination with children who suffer at the hands of parents with Munchausen by proxy syndrome. There have been plenty of other disturbing Munchausen by proxy syndrome cases in the news over the last few decades, and they all go to prove, sadly, that the story of the Blanchardes, which was just told on-screen in HBO's Mommy Dead & Dearest, did not happen in a vacuum.
Dr. Gail Saltz, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine tells Bustle that Munchausen by proxy syndrome is an often undetected mental illness and a form of abuse in which a caregiver “fabricates an illness or injury or induces an illness or injury upon someone in their care (most often their child) for the purpose of being a victim by association and getting medical attention and care from others.” She adds that it does affect mostly women, namely mothers and their children, but that the victim can also be an elderly or disabled person they care for.
Saltz understands why audiences are so fascinated by the syndrome and the depictions of it in the media. “It is one of the more curious mental illnesses because we don’t really know what causes it nor do we have very successful means of treating it. It is unusual and it can cause terrible harm to those who are most vulnerable,” she adds, noting that it’s especially difficult for people to understand why a mother would knowingly harm their child.
The story of the Blanchardes is not the first case of Munchausen by proxy that has come to the public's attention — it’s just the first one that has been adapted for TV multiple times. The following cases provide other view
1. Marybeth Tinning
As reported by Rolling Stone, Tinning's story spans from 1967 to 1985 and involves the births of her nine children, who are suspected of having been murdered at the hands of their mother, often shortly after their births. It is thought that only one child, Jennifer, died of natural causes, at eight days old; her siblings, however, would not live past the age of four.
According to Rolling Stone, Tinning would frequently bring her infant children to the emergency room, one after the other, where they were treated for symptoms like seizures and cardiac arrest. In Tinning's home town of Schenectady, New York, locals apparently whispered the family had a "death gene"; by the time Tinning's fifth child died, doctors believed it was simply a rampant string of SIDS-related deaths.
Tinning was only convicted in the death of her youngest child, Tami Lynne. She was charged with second degree murder and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison, where she is now.
2. Kathy Bush
More than 20 years ago in South Florida, Jennifer Bush was taken from her family and placed in the care of the state when it was believed her mother, Kathy Bush, was intentionally making her sick as a result of Munchausen by proxy. In 1995, it was alleged that Bush was giving her daughter extra doses of medicine in order and possibly intentionally infecting her in order to take her to the emergency room to be treated. According to the Sun-Sentinel, by the time Jennifer was eight, she had spent over 640 days in the hospital, undergone 40 medical procedures, had 1,819 nonsurgical treatments, according to investigators.
Despite Bush being charged with aggravated child abuse, sentenced to five years, and, as the Sun-Sentinel indicates, serving eight years, Jennifer maintains that she was never abused.
3. Lacey Spears
Chilling to the bone is the case of Lacey Spears, a popular blogger who was convicted in the death of her son, Garnett, after poisoning him with salt. Rolling Stone's account of Spears' treatment of Garnett is haunting: "[U]nbeknownst to Lacey's faithful supporters, she had been secretly poisoning the child with life-threatening doses of salt through a feeding tube. [...] It was then revealed that Spears had asked a neighbor to enter their home and dispose of Garnett's feeding bag which was allegedly filled with the equivalent of 69 packets of salt."
4. Lisa Hayden-Johnson
Hayden-Johnson's treatment of her son is particularly disturbing because of how public she made her son's medical ordeals. According to the Daily Mail, Hayden-Johnson "claimed he suffered from illnesses including diabetes, food allergies, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis and an intolerance to sunlight" and subjected him to over 325 medical procedures, some allegedly done in-home. She would publicize her son's alleged illnesses in exchange for access to high-profile events, like attending The X-Factor tapings and meeting former Prime Minister Tony Blair. She is currently in jail for her crimes.
5. Blanca Montano
Sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2013 for her cruel and unusual role in the death of her infant daughter, Blanca Montano's case of Munchausen's is particularly tough to read. ABC News stated Montano was charged with child abuse after her daughter was found to be suffering from nine different and apparently aggravated infections after being admitted to the hospital for flu-like symptoms in February 2011. It was later found out she had been infecting her daughter with fecal matter and various other bacterias while her daughter was in the hospital.
6. Leslie Wilfred
Wilfred's case is puzzling because involves her faking a pregnancy with twins and their so-called deaths. In 2008, Wilfred called her family from the hospital to tell her family that her twins were stillborn at five months. Wilfred reported to her family that each child had taken "one breath" before they passed away.
Following the family's funeral for the twins, where Wilfred had specified they be cremated and buried in teddy bear-shaped urns, it was revealed that the twins never existed at all. "Leslie Wilfred was not capable of getting pregnant, as she had had her tubes tied prior to her marriage to her current and second husband, Chris," Fox News reports. "The ultrasound photos were of some other woman’s child, lifted from an unknown website, and the [...] urns were filled with nothing but air."
It was later revealed that Wilfred had not only faked a pregnancy but had also been making her other children incredibly sick over the years. She pled guilty to several counts of child cruelty and is serving an eight-year sentence with 30 years probation.
7. Hope Ybarra
Ybarra's story is one which combines both forms of Munchausen's, just like Wilfred's. For years, Ybarra claimed she was sick with leukemia, going so far as to shave her hair and eyebrows to give the impression of her condition. According to Rolling Stone, Ybarra would update a personal blog constantly with news of her condition, even going so far as to discuss "what colors she had picked out for her casket."
Ybarra's young daughter was also reportedly suffering from an unknown illness, which later proved to be tied to her mother's Munchausen's: "Ybarra was never sick, and neither was her youngest daughter, until Ybarra poisoned her with stolen pathogens that sent the child into anaphylactic shock. Later, the Fort Worth mother admitted to using nasal spray to alter the results of a sweat test for Cystic Fibrosis and draining her daughter's blood little by little with a syringe."
Currently incarcerated, Ybarra will be eligible for parole in 2019.
8. Sandy Gregory-Parocai
The story of Gregory-Parocai emerged when her daughter, Julie Gregory, spoke of her mother's alleged abuses in her book Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood. In the book, Gregory claimed that her mother would abuse her in ways that might present as Munchausen by proxy, including one instance where she allegedly used to dig "through her mother's purse looking for her special 'suckers' which turn out to be a pack of matches she is encouraged to eat." While there is some dispute around the veracity of Gregory's memoirs (Gregory-Parocai was never convicted of any crime), it remains an intriguing example of how Munchausen by proxy can be used to pathologize childhood trauma as well as how the reputation of the syndrome has been readily applied (and potentially inappropriately so) to graphic accounts of alleged child abuse.
These are only a handful of the Munchausen's cases known and documented for public record but they remain, nonetheless, as fascinating as they are disturbing.
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