They still don’t have a definitive cause for 4-year-old Jaxen Steimlosk’s medical problems. According to a report by the Portland Press-Herald, it’s coded under muscular dystrophy, a blanket diagnosis that deals with symptoms rather than cause. He needs a feeding tube. He requires a breathing tube. And yet, test after test, treatment after treatment, diagnostic failure after diagnostic failure, baffled doctor after baffled doctor. So much so that his mom, Cassie Steimlosk, was accused of medical child abuse — which is sometimes referred to as factitious disorder (formerly know as Munchausen by proxy.)
Medical child abuse occurs, according to MedlinePlus, when a person — usually a mother — fabricates a child’s illness as a way to gain attention and sometimes material benefit. It’s a mental illness. The child’s symptoms can be real (the caregiver actually inflicts them) or made up. Steimlosk’s ordeal was long, arduous, and completely fabricated. The state “rushed to judgment,” according the the Press-Herald — making a decision of medical child abuse and working backwards to prove their case. They accused Steimlosk of conning doctors into performing unnecessary surgeries upon a small child. They threatened for months to remove Jaxen, but never met him, a fact emphasized by both the Press-Herald and Steimlosk herself. Steimlosk told Scary Mommy that Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) never visited her home or met her other children.
The State of Maine opened a case in June 2019, and filed a petition to remove Jaxen in August 2019. For months, Steimlosk and her husband Tim, along with their other children, lived in terror that he would be taken at any time. Her children took hundreds of hours of video and thousands of pictures of Jaxen that summer. They were afraid the state would take him away. But they fought. Steimlosk told Scary Mommy that thousands of papers covered her living room. They employed attorney Beth Maloney, who’s worked with many similar cases, to defend them. Their case became so involved that the lawyer remains a family friend and calls daily.
All substantiations of medical child abuse were eventually overturned in December 2019 — after $240,000 dollars, sleepless nights, and stress beyond imagining. And the ordeal hadn’t ended.
Steimlosk told Scary Mommy, “I still have a lot of emotional triggers just leaving my house “because of the shame of being labeled a child abuser. She sees people in the grocery store who accused her of abuse — going to the grocery store, she says, used to be a major issue for her. Steimlosk would mow the lawn in the dark, terrified of seeing someone who might “say something” to her about the abuse case.
Steimlosk was a stay-at-home mom who has always loved children. She bashfully told Scary Mommy, the type of person of whom people would always say, “Oh, when I have kids, I hope I’m a mom like you.” She was always a mother’s helper, a babysitter. She ran a daycare. She wore her children — she wore the daycare children, and when people laughed at her, she told them that “the daycare kids need to be loved on, too.”
“To have that accusation placed on me was just devastating,” she said. “It’s very difficult to face life.” She suffered from violent, recurring nightmares. Her husband’s neuropathic illnesses, affected by stress, have worsened. The two of them take it day by day, she told Scary Mommy.
One incident symbolized how much the family’s life has changed. Someone knocked on the door one day after the case ended. Steimlosk bolted it, threw the curtains closed, and shook. “I lost my ability to protect my kids except to hide,” she said.
She explained that as a parent, she sees her main job as protecting her children. “You tell them it’s okay, everything will be all right [Mommy’s here] … I couldn’t promise that anymore,” because the state had spent so long threatening to take the kids. Even if she says that, she told Scary Mommy, “the oldest know it’s not guaranteed.” They know, instead, that the state, rather than their parents, has the ultimate say. “The state stole my ability to protect my kids — and my kids know it.”
They also know, Steimlosk said, that these things happened to her even though she was honest, and even though she fought hard for Jaxen’s best interests. They learned that “it can happen to people who are honest and good,” which is something that like all parents, she wanted to shield her kids from for as long as possible. It was what Steimlosk calls “an ultimate betrayal” — one of their accusers was a home health nurse whom they had let into their house. Someone they trusted. Their daughter Ever has said, “How is it that people can pretend to be kind?” Even little Jaxen has been affected. He told Steimlosk of one potential friend saying, “I liked her. But I found out she wore a mask of kindness, and when she took it off, she was really mean.”
Their ordeal has caused “eternal damage.” In addition to not feeling safe in the family itself, the kids have to be pushed to leave to do “normal kid stuff — they’re scared a lot.” They’re so scared, in fact, and so scared of their mother being accused of medical child abuse, that they try to hide their own health issues now. They don’t trust counselors, because their mother’s counselor talked to the state. Their oldest is in constant pain over nerve issues in her hands and stomach problems, but she suffered for a long time before she told her parents, and she’s afraid to talk to doctors about them. “She’s afraid they’ll come to take her away,” Steimlosk said. “I can’t promise her they won’t.”
The damage keeps going. They lost most of Jaxen’s medical team — “nearly all of his care,” Steimlosk said. Hospitals aren’t always safe places for them because the state reported her as under investigation for medical child abuse. She’s frightened at all of Jaxen’s doctor’s appointments, and she feels that she can no longer advocate for his care. She told Scary Mommy that if she pushes for something, “and the doctor doesn’t like it,” they might think she’s “trying to create a certain diagnosis” which could lead to repeat allegations of medical child abuse. She has to carry binders with all the trial documentation to her to new doctors, all the work that cleared her. She said that even when doctors say they’ll take her anyway, she gives them a week to call her back to refuse.
“We never had speeding tickets. We were never in car accidents more than a fender bender,” she told Scary Mommy. “It destroyed us … I was never a worrier. I always assumed people were nice, but now it’s hard to assume people are kind.”
Of the kids, she said, “How do I create that trust for them again?” It’s hard for her to hold her hand out to people and say, “Hi, I’m Cassie Steimlosk” because of the abuse allegations.
In the end, she said, the state and the people involved in Jaxen’s case thought “nothing of the damage” they would cause. They “are still missing pieces,” Steimlosk told Scary Mommy, because of the false allegations of medical child abuse, and always will be. For the Steimlosk family, the court battle may be over. But its damage still rages on.