The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

Heroine Rush

Mothers, Munchausen By Proxy and Murder

Few feelings can match the terror we parents feel when our child is sick and the doctor can’t figure out what’s wrong.  Rationally, we may know that the odds are, it’s not something serious and it’s something our child will get over.  Perhaps the symptoms aren’t even that bad – an intermittent, low grade fever, persistent cough, or a loss of appetite that just doesn’t seem to go away. 

All that logic fails us, though, in those wee hours of the morning when the what-ifs rear their ugly head and torment us with the possibility that – yes – our child could have that rare, unrecognized, or misdiagnosed biological killer that originally masks itself as a typical childhood illness but, over time, sheds its harmless disguise and takes our child’s life.

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In fact, the fear that a child has a terminal illness is so strong that it’s unfathomable to think a parent might intentionally cause one.  And yet, for those rare parents convicted of medical child abuse, the need to be seen as a heroine coping with one of life’s toughest adversities clearly trumps the maternal instinct.

Real-life Munchausen Moms

Doctors at Children’s Hospital of St. Paul were baffled when Katie Lewis brought her 5 month old son to the emergency room claiming that he would suddenly stop breathing and turn blue.  Test after test were run; all were negative.  The mystery was solved, however, when video surveillance, placed without her knowledge in the baby’s hospital room, captured her pinching his nose until he passed out.  After creating the medical emergency, she then frantically called the nurse for help (seeming to save her son’s life).  When confronted, Ms. Lewis confessed to creating these medical emergencies in her son beginning when he was 3 months old.

Amanda Ann Butler had already taken her 2 year old daughter countless times to the hospital for unexplained seizures when the toddler apparently died from one in 2002.  Even at the time, authorities worried that the mother had been involved; no one besides Amanda Ann had ever witnessed her daughter’s seizures, endless medical tests were unable to find any medical cause and the medical examiner said the autopsy results suggested the child had been suffocated.  However, due to lack of evidence, she was never charged until she was caught on camera surveillance trying to suffocate her three month old son (who had mysteriously developed the same pattern of unexplained seizures).  She is currently serving up to 45 years in prison after pleading guilty to second degree murder in the death of her daughter.

Four year old Mikal Pickens and his six year old sister, Kheematah, were hospitalized with severe vomiting and diarrhea in early October 2004.  Initially, the children were suspected of the stomach flu, after their mother, Judy, told the medical staff that a stomach bug had been going around the children’s school.  However, several days into their hospital stay the children were not getting better and Mikal died shortly after his fourth birthday.  As it turns out, the stomach bug story was only one of the many lies Judy Pickens told the doctors and nurses who were taking care of her children.  In August 2009, she was convicted of murdering her son via Clonidine (a high blood pressure medication Judy had been taking since 2000) and injuring her six year old daughter (who recovered quickly from her illness once her mother was barred from her hospital room).

The Bottom Line

The article (the first in a series) takes a look at three mothers who were convicted of medical murder.  I chose to start by telling their stories lest you doubt that such incidences even happen. Not often, and not every parent who’s accused of it is guilty.  But, because the mortality rate for medical child abuse is so high, it’s imperative that we realize that, when it does, a child’s life is at stake.  

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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