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Family Law: When Too Much Medical Care Is Neglect

Attorney discusses Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Editor's Note: Each week, attorney , whose practice is based on Hampton Road in Southampton Village, answers family law questions on Southampton Patch. Her answers are based on New York State law and family court decisions.

Q. If a parent repeatedly takes a child to the emergency room imagining a life-threatening illness, is this a form of child neglect?

A. The New York Administration of Children's Services brought a child neglect petition against a mother, claiming she had put her son at risk of harm by seeking unnecessary medical care. In a period of less than two years, the mother claimed that her son suffered from at least two apparent life-threatening episodes, saw three different doctors, was subjected to numerous medical tests, was placed on an in-home monitor and needlessly hospitalized twice.

The agency argued that the mother suffered from a psychiatric disorder and had been creating non-existent medical conditions. A mental disorder known as "Munchausen syndrome by proxy" was later diagnosed by a pediatrician, who testified as an expert in child abuse.

One time the child was admitted to North Shore University Hospital because the boy had diarrhea for a number of days, causing dehydration. Two days later, the symptoms disappeared, and the mother was told to take him home. She refused, claiming that while in the hospital he had also suffered numerous episodes of apnea, where his breathing stopped and he turned blue or gray, according to the mother. However, hospital records noted his color was normal, and further tests showed no apnea.

Considering the serious consequences suffered by this child when with his mother and her clear fabrications, the court found that the child would remain at imminent risk of harm if returned to the mother's care.

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