In 1977, British pediatrician Dr. Roy Meadow identified a medical condition when a caregiver might exaggerate or fabricate an illness in another person, such as a parent who induces an illness in his or her child. Meadow named the condition Munchausen syndrome by proxy and developed what is known as “Meadow’s Law,” which holds that the death of one child in a family is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder. Meadow testified in court against dozens of parents suspected of making their children ill. Some convictions in which Meadow’s theories or testimony played a role were later set aside. As a result, authorities in the United Kingdom have become wary of cases based on Munchausen syndrome by proxy diagnoses.
In the United States, Munchausen syndrome by proxy is often referred to as medical child abuse and has expanded to encompass situations where a child receives unnecessary and harmful, or potentially harmful, medical care at the insistence of the child’s caregiver. Many of the indicators used to diagnose medical child abuse are also behaviors exhibited by innocent parents seeking the best care for their children. For example, a parent’s attentiveness or reluctance to leave a child’s bedside or a family history of childhood illnesses have been used to help demonstrate medical child abuse.
It is unclear how many medical child abuse cases are reported in the United States each year. Exact numbers of criminal cases are difficult to track because the charge or charges brought against those accused often do not use the term “medical child abuse,” so cases are not recorded as such in the public court system. Rather, the caregiver is accused of aggravated child abuse, reckless endangerment, first-degree murder or other crimes. Also, medical child abuse has gone by many names including Munchausen syndrome by proxy, pediatric condition falsification and factitious disorder by proxy, and cases can be handled in family or juvenile court, where records are generally not publicly available.
The Medill Justice Project is gathering information about medical child abuse criminal cases, collecting data through various sources, including press accounts, which criminal justice researchers consider a valid way to gather information given the dearth of data otherwise publicly available. We have excluded defendants’ names in our public database to prevent those who may have been wrongly accused from suffering further harm. In addition, the goal of the database is to examine national patterns and trends. The identified cases occurred across the United States, and accusations include feeding a child salt, disconnecting a child’s feeding tube and requesting unnecessary medical procedures for a child. The database was updated Oct. 20, 2015.
The Medill Justice Project is continuing to research criminal cases of medical child abuse. If you have information about a case, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 847-491-5840.
To view a Medill Justice Project investigation of a medical child abuse case in Oregon, click the following links:
Cases collected by The Medill Justice Project
Map visualizations by Aditya Venkataraman/The Medill Justice Project
Table visualization by Catherine Schur/The Medill Justice Project