Munchausen syndrome by proxy diagnoses under question in Lehigh County

"It was devastating. I mean, it just felt like a movie," said a parent who was accused of Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
Thursday, August 24, 2023
PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- An elected official in Lehigh County is calling for action after he says he discovered an unusually high number of rare medical diagnoses.

He says they led to multiple parents losing custody of their children.

The parents were diagnosed with Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSP), a form of child abuse where the caretaker of a child either makes up fake symptoms to make a child appear sick or causes them to be sick.

The financial watchdog in Lehigh County, who is running for reelection, became concerned after he said he found a remarkably high concentration of the cases in his region.

"It was devastating. I mean, it just felt like a movie," said a parent who was accused of Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Steve and Kim, who don't want their last names revealed, say their family fractured when they lost custody of their then 16-year-old son in May of 2022, and even lost custody of their younger son for a few weeks the following month.

"Within 30 hours, I believe from records, we were accused of having Munchausen syndrome by proxy without ever having met us or spoken to us," said Kim.

They had taken their 16-year-old son to the ER at a local Hospital in Allentown.

Citing privacy for their son, they will only say that he's medically complex, under treatment by specialists at the Cleveland Clinic for years, and was in crisis.

He told nurses he was emotionally abused. The parents say it was partly due to his declining health and frustrations at home with discipline regarding his cell phone.

They say the next day, access to their son was cut off and a caseworker told them they were being accused of Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

"She clarified for me that this hospital does this," Kim told Action News Investigative Reporter Chad Pradelli.

Mark Pinsley is the Lehigh County controller. He is calling for an investigation. He's concerned the county could get sued for millions of dollars.

"Could this be a cluster of legitimate cases? It seems unlikely, but that's why I'm calling for an investigation," said Pinsley.

Pinsley says he found Lehigh and Northhampton counties had 1/3 of all Munchausen syndrome by proxy cases reported in Pennsylvania from 2017-2021 with eight.

Steve and Kim were accused of the disorder the following year.

"And to give you an idea of scale, in the last five years, there's only 10 counties out of 67 that have had any diagnosis of Munchausen syndrome by proxy," added Pinsley.

After a yearlong ordeal seeking to regain custody, Kim and Steve finally had their day in court.

Their attorney, Beth Maloney, says a months-long psychological evaluation found the parents did not have Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

And in the middle of their child protection trial, Lehigh County Children and Youth suddenly withdrew their case without conditions, but their son opted to stay in foster care.

"Children and youth services failed to do any investigation into the case, refused to consider the multitude of medical records verifying that in fact, these parents not only had children who needed expert care but were receiving expert care," said Maloney.

"They took all our rights away and traumatized the kids and that's not something that you can fix," Kim said fighting back tears.

Lehigh County Children and Youth had no comment to Action News.

The Action News Investigative Team continues to investigate which doctors and hospital networks may be responsible.
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