JUNE 05, 17:50 EDT

Cameras Urged in Mom Hospital Rooms
Associated Press Writer

Cynthia Lyda is led into the John Wood Federal Courthouse in San Antonio in shackles on April 29, 1998, just before she was to appear in civil court for a custody hearing concerning her children. She has been diagonosed with Munchausen Syndrome, a disorder which causes mothers and other caregivers to cause illnesses in children to gain admiration and respect.
AP/Kin Man Hui [17K]

ATLANTA (AP) — Baffled by unexplained illnesses in some children, researchers hid video cameras in 41 rooms at an Atlanta hospital. More than half the time, the videotapes confirmed doctors' fears — mothers were injecting their children with urine, switching their medication and even suffocating them to keep them sick.

The cameras, installed over four years, helped diagnose 23 mothers with Munchausen syndrome by proxy — a mental illness that causes parents hungry for attention or sympathy to abuse their children.

Doctors say the mental illness leads to children's deaths in about 10 percent of cases. But they say diagnosing the disorder is difficult, and the number could be higher.

``It's just astonishing,'' said Dr. David Chadwick, retired director of the child protection center at Children's Hospital-San Diego, who was not involved in the research. ``Suffocation just seems so horrible, but we've got videotapes of that. One of these days we're going to have a videotaped episode of a child getting killed.''

Jennifer Bush, 8, applies medicine from a syringe as treatment for a rare disease at her Coral Springs, Fla., home in this Jan. 25, 1996 photo. Jennifer has been hospitalized more than 200 times, undergone 40 operations and has accumulated $3 million in medical expenses. Jennifer has been placed under state care and her mother, Kathy Bush, jailed for allegedly causing her illnesses, known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, a rare form of child abuse in which an adult intentionally makes a child ill in order to get attention.
AP/Alan Diaz [17K]

The researchers, whose study appears in Tuesday's issue of the journal Pediatrics, urged hospitals to use hidden cameras to diagnose Munchausen by proxy.

But some specialists call the practice an unethical invasion of privacy and say it means doctors must silently let the behavior continue.

Munchausen by proxy is a derivative of Munchausen syndrome, in which people make themselves ill or fake sickness to get attention.

The mothers in the Atlanta study went to extreme lengths to deceive doctors. In one case, specialists could not explain a child's recurring E. coli infections. Cameras caught the mother injecting her own urine into the child's intravenous line.

In another, a mother gagged herself and vomited, then told doctors the vomit was her child's. Another child, otherwise healthy, suffered baffling episodes of fatigue — until cameras showed the mother injecting chemicals into her child's gastronomy tube.

The mothers told outrageous lies to doctors and to relatives they spoke with on hospital phones. One woman invented seizures that her child never had.

Police were informed of the videotaping beforehand, and many of the mothers were arrested on charges of abuse and other offenses. The study did not release details of the criminal cases.

Eleven of the 23 Munchausen mothers worked in medicine in some form, and eight reported a history of sexual or other abuse. That suggests the women, desperate for sympathy, may associate comfort and protection with hospitals.

``The mothers feel that they are helping their children,'' said Gordon Harper, a psychology professor at Harvard University who also was not involved with the research. ``They miss part of the picture, which is that the children don't have the conditions the parents think they do.''

Potentially making matters worse, some doctors are reluctant to diagnose Munchausen by proxy because it forces them to realize they had unwittingly done exactly what the mothers had craved, by ordering expensive tests and providing sympathy and attention, experts said.

The authors — five doctors from Emory University and the hospital where the study was carried out, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite — say cameras can be lifesavers for children.

Though critics raise privacy issues, the researchers say privacy rights are often compromised in hospitals.

Copyright 2000 Associated Press.