When Mothers Harm Their Kids

When Mothers Harm Their Kids


This is a strange story. The contents of it sound as if they are from a psychological thriller. But they are true. Names have been changed to protect identities.


Several years ago, Hafsa, a young mother of four children approached a high-end private school to enrol two of her middle children. The eldest child, a son aged 6 had severe autism. The second and third children aged 4 and a half and 3 respectively – also boys – were to attend this new school. The youngest was a girl of around 1 and half.


At the school, Hafsa met the principal a seasoned educator herself, and convinced her to lower their school fees as she was in a desperate situation. She had also found a sponsor to cover the remainder of the fees as she couldn’t afford to pay for her children’s education. The principal – a shrewd woman – had met thousands of people throughout her career. Something about Hafsa’s situation led her give the requested discount.


Hafsa was perhaps in her late twenties or at most, in her early thirties. Her parents had died years ago She had married a man who already had a wife and a family. And in typical fashion, her domestic life was far from happy. Her husband lived with the first wife, and Hafsa fended for herself and her children.  However, she kept her thoughts to herself. To add to the story, Hafsa resided with her advanced-in-age aunt. The aunt had provided a home for Hafsa and her children, in return for care as she too was sick and required looking after. Consequently, Hafsa provided care for 5 individuals, while she also worked online to make ends meet.


The principal wondered why a rational young woman would have agreed to such a match and then produced four children in quick succession if her marriage had been turbulent and uncertain. With the principal’s blessing, the two middle boys began attending school. But the principal kept close watch on their activities. She noted that the boys were withdrawn and easily angered. Perhaps it stemmed from their less-than-perfect domestic situation and parents’ tempestuous relationship. A few weeks later Hafsa called the school in distress: the youngest daughter had been rushed to the hospital with seizures and Hafsa had spent the night in a hospital corridor with her three boys. The call was to notify the school of the children’s absence.


And then, it became a cycle. Every few days both brothers would miss school because they or their siblings became sick – not just sick, seriously sick. And if it wasn’t any of the children, it would be the aunt who suddenly became seriously unwell. The boys’ absence from school began taking a toll on their academics as well. Their absence every few days meant that they were always standing on square one.


One day, the elder sibling enrolled at the school became seriously ill with a mysterious illness that wouldn’t go away. As per Hafsa, even the doctors were puzzled as each test they conducted was inconclusive, but the child still showed symptoms of severe illness. Eventually, this passed too. The children returned to school, back to square one and in many ways, even worst off – the elder boy had suddenly gone mute. The school psychologist shared her concerns with other staff members. The psychologist thought that something else was at play. The principal already suspected something foul.


During one meeting with the mother, the school administration began to realise something very sinister. The mother’s medical knowledge was very deep. True, mothers become familiar with medical terms as they deal with their children’s health, but in Hafsa’s case it was on another level. The school staff began suspecting Hafsa of foul play. They began noticing many details and they all pointed to Hafsa as the force that made her children and aunt sick. The school psychologist suspected that Hafsa – a victim of trauma throughout her life – may have developed a serious mental health disorder herself. The psychologist suspected that the young mother had Munchausen Syndrome by proxy – a condition in which caregivers induce or makeup illnesses in their dependents as a way to seek attention. It was just a suspicion, and the school could do nothing until the mother sought help.


The school administration politely suggested seeking help to the mother. When no action took place, the school decided to unregister both boys as eventually, the school’s reputation could be on the line as well if the mother did something even more drastic. After they left, the principal doesn’t know what became of them.


What Leads some Mothers to Harm their Kids

Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSP), also known as Factitious Disorder imposed on another (FDIA), is a mental illness. It is also a form of child abuse. The caregiver of a child, in most cases, the mother, either fakes symptoms, falsify test results or even causes real symptoms that make the child sick. This may have been the case with Hafsa.


Munchausen Syndrome by proxy or FDIA is very rare. There have been a handful of known cases of this disorder in the past two decades. In all of them, the child eventually died and the mother was arrested for murder and convicted. In one shocking and highly publicised case in 2015, the daughter killed the abusive mother. The mother had induced severe trauma on the daughter (shaved head to show she had cancer, not feeding her enough so she looked sick, and confining her to a wheelchair for most her life). Eventually, the daughter conspired to kill her mother. She was sentenced to prison as well. Most shocking perhaps was the story of Mary Beth Tinning – she was convicted and imprisoned for the murder of her ninth child. The previous eight children had all died in infancy, it was later suspected that Mary Beth had killed most of them.


However rare, MSP or FDIA should not be ignored as it can prove lethal for children.  The prognosis for someone with FDIA is poor. Whether or not therapy is effective in this case is as yet unclear. In known cases (mainly in the west), children are usually taken away from the abusive parent. Many cases have ended in the child’s death.


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