When Emma Watson was born in 1996, she seemed at first to be a perfectly healthy, happy baby. But her mother, Lisa, who lives in northern England, soon realized that Emma was reaching developmental milestones later than her three elder siblings had. Then one day the 6-month-old girl's eyes rolled back and she began shaking uncontrollably. Emma was diagnosed with epilepsy. Lisa says that the seizures continued. In 1998, shortly after the family's pediatrician retired, Emma's new doctor admitted her to the hospital for observation. The seizures Watson had reported Emma having at home stopped, but the doctors weren't satisfied. In fact, they became suspicious the Watsons received a disability allowance because of Emma's diagnosis; had that led Lisa to fake the illness? The doctors began asking her if she'd been abused as a child, or had ever made up stories about her children being sick. When Lisa demonstrated a mastery of Emma's complex medical history, they quizzed her: "How do you know all this?" Her response: "Wouldn't any mother have tried to find out as much as she could?"
The doctors' suspicions were reinforced when Emma balked at removing her clothes for examination. At first Watson was incredulous at the insinuations of abuse. As they turned into accusations, she and her husband threatened to take Emma home. When they attempted to leave with her, police and social services escorted them from the hospital and an emergency protection order was issued. Emma was placed in foster care, and officials told Watson, pregnant with her fifth child, that they would apply to place the baby in care at birth. "Why don't you just admit you like hurting your children?" a case worker urged her. Her voice quavering at the memory of her nightmarish ordeal, Watson insists that she has never harmed any of her children in any way.
And so Lisa Watson (both her and her child's name have been changed) became one of hundreds of parents in the U.K. to be accused in recent years of making their children ill or pretending that they are ill, thereby causing them to be subjected to unnecessary, potentially harmful medical procedures. In July, a Scottish court sentenced Susan Hamilton to four years in prison for assault and endangering her child's life. The court ruled that she had poisoned her now brain-damaged daughter with large doses of salt, prompting hospitalizations and doctors' visits over several years. Hamilton and her family say she was wrongly prosecuted.
This kind of abuse was first given a name by British pediatrician Roy Meadow, who acted as a consultant in Watson's case.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]Meadow coined the term Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy (MSBP) in a 1977 Lancet article to describe the behavior of "parents who, by falsification, caused their children innumerable harmful hospital procedures." (Patients with Munchausen Syndrome, named for a fictional character known for tall tales, fake their own symptoms.) In the U.K. and elsewhere, MSBP has become an increasingly common diagnosis, as medical and law-
enforcement professionals became familiar with the catalog of MSBP indicators. The FBI profile of the typical perpetrator, for example, warns that they "are most often biological mothers of the victims ... welcome medical tests that are painful to the child ... and appear to be very knowledgeable about the victim's illness." Such parents seem loving, yet enjoy the attention generated by their child's alleged illness. Meadow, now 70, earned a knighthood for his pioneering work, became the leading authority in the field and has been an expert witness in scores of cases involving allegations of child abuse through factitious illness by proxy.
But now Meadow is under attack. Two high-profile criminal trials in which he was a witness have recently collapsed. Sally Clark of Cheshire and Trupti Patel of Berkshire were both tried for murder, accused of suffocating their children and blaming cot death. Patel was acquitted in June. The case against Clark, a lawyer who served three years in prison after her 1999 conviction for killing two of her three sons, was struck down on appeal in April when it emerged that pathologist Alan Williams, a key prosecution witness, had failed to disclose evidence of an infection that could have contributed to the death of one of the boys.