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Factitious disorder by proxy, previously known as Munchausen by proxy, occurs when a caretaker (usually a mother) directly causes her child to be, or appear to be, ill or impaired and obtains medical interventions. The name for this disorder is derived from the adult condition factitious disorder, which is a self-inflicted or fabricated illness to gain medical attention. In factitious disorder by proxy, a child may be hospitalized unnecessarily or may receive inappropriate procedures and treatments that may have devastating effects on the child.


The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC) proposed “pediatric condition falsification” (PCF) as a diagnostic description for abuse through illness fabrication. Conditions may be exaggerated, fabricated, or induced. Factitious disorder by proxy (FDP) refers to a form of PCF in which a caretaker abuses a child for personal psychological motivations. Although often difficult to discern, the motivation in FDP is important to know, because this form of abuse often has a guarded prognosis and may need different interventions than other forms of child abuse. PCF is child abuse regardless of the motivation. The historical term FDP continues to be used by pediatricians and other child advocacy specialists.1


Approximately 140 new cases of the most serious forms of FDP (eg, suffocation, poisoning) can be expected annually in the United States2,3; less dramatic forms are often undetected.


The self-serving psychological needs in factitious disorder by proxy vary. Some individuals appear to need or thrive on the attention that results from their own perception as the devoted parent of a sick child; others appear to be motivated by the need to covertly control or deceive clinicians or other authority figures. These mothers appear to have the ability to convince others of their essential goodness and caring.4 External incentives such as monetary rewards may be present but are not the paramount motivation.


The abuse in FDP frequently involves the physician as an unsuspecting agent in harming the child. Qualities that we value in doctors, such as empathic caring and an interest in and need to solve complicated medical problems, may make some clinicians more susceptible to manipulations. This is often the case when a perpetuator is a colleague or someone with medical knowledge.5


Despite signs and symptoms that are not consistent or that are ambiguous, or despite surgical procedures and medications that do not change the reported symptoms, the pediatrician is so often taken in that they disregard the suspicions of others and prolong the child’s suffering. Death rates in reported cases are between 6% and 9%. When a new case occurs, other siblings who died mysteriously may be discovered.2 In a study with covert video surveillance of 38 women and one father suspected of suffocating their children, 33 were observed abusing their child on camera, and 3 others later admitted abuse. Eventually, 38 out of 39 parents were found to have abused their children. ...

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