A Deeper Dive Into The History Of Medical Child Abuse

In “The Controversial Child Abuse Epidemic Tearing Families Apart,” Jody Allard explores medical child abuse, a diagnosis that’s generating heated debate in the medical community and disproportionately affecting women. Here, she explores medical child abuse’s roots in a different disorder known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.

In 1951, Richard Asher coined the term “Munchausen Syndrome” to define self-harm in a medical system. Then, in 1977, British pediatrician Roy Meadow expanded on this to include the harm of others within a medical setting (particularly parents harming children), which he labeled Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP).

The National Institutes of Health define MSBP as a form of child abuse where “the caretaker of a child, usually a mother, either makes up fake symptoms or causes real symptoms to make it look like the child is sick.” It is believed that parents with MSBP make their children appear sick, or even create a sickness, in order to gain attention and sympathy for raising a child with special needs.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Meadow went on to serve as an expert witness on hundreds of MSBP cases in England. The pivotal case was that of Sally Clark, a lawyer who was convicted of murdering her infant sons in 1999. Meadow testified in Clark’s case that the odds of having two children die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in a single affluent family were 1 in 73 million; however, it was later shown that once genetic and environmental factors were taken into consideration, the odds ranged from 1 in 8,500 to 1 in 100. Furthermore, it was proven on appeal that there was clear evidence at the time of the original trial that a severe infection had spread to one of the children’s cerebrospinal fluid, which could have caused his death.

After Clark’s conviction was overturned in 2003, three other MSBP convictions that relied upon Meadow’s testimony were also overturned. Meadow was accused by Lord Howe — the spokesman for the British Opposition party — of having invented a “theory without science” and refusing to produce any real evidence that MSBP actually exists. He was found guilty of serious professional misconduct by the British medical counsel and stripped of his medical license in 2006, though his punishment was later reversed on appeal.

Meanwhile, Clark was found dead a year later in her home of alcohol poisoning, having never recovered from her false conviction and subsequent imprisonment.

Despite the controversy over Meadow’s role in MSBP cases, the MSBP diagnosis itself made its way to America, where it flourished. By 1995, MSBP had become so popular that Meadow himself admitted that the diagnosis had been overused and misunderstood by some social workers and legal professionals.

Much of the controversy over MSBP stemmed from its focus on the intention and profile of the caregiver rather than the harm inflicted on the child. As a result, in the early 2000s, Dr. Thomas Roesler and Dr. Carole Jenny — an American husband and wife team of medical child abuse pediatric specialists — proposed a new diagnosis called medical child abuse.

Today, that diagnosis continues to send shockwaves through the medical community and the lives of the families it impacts.

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