For most parents, watching their child suffer a serious or life-threatening illness is one of their worst nightmares. We go to great lengths to protect our babies every day, and the idea of sickness swooping in and taking away that safety is one of the things that sometimes keeps us up at night.
Loving parents want their children to be as safe and healthy as they possibly can. It’s universal, isn’t it?
In rare instances, a parent lacks that common instinct. Something goes awry inside their mind and tells them that having a child who needs significant, ongoing medical care is desirable or ideal. Whatever drives them, the outcome is the same: they lie and exaggerate their children’s conditions, subjecting their children to treatment they never needed. Their kids’ suffering is immeasurable and causes significant trauma.
Doctors used to call it Munchausen Syndrome by proxy. Now, they call it factitious disorder imposed on another or medical child abuse.
There is no doubt these cases exist. One of the most famous examples is Gypsy Rose Blanchard, who is currently in prison, along with her boyfriend, for murdering her mother, DeeDee Blanchard, after a lifetime of fabricated illnesses and unnecessary treatments.
It is almost always mothers that stand accused. Allegations of medical child abuse rarely befall a father. The people evaluating these children might say it’s because factitious disorder imposed on another has been observed more often in mothers than fathers. I’m sure that research plays a role. But it also reeks of sexism. Moms carry the burden of care, then carry the blame by default when something seems amiss.
Take the case of Ajshay James. Her daughter Harper was born very premature. She spent the first four months of her life in the NICU, fighting to survive. Harper went home at five months old, only to return soon after to have life-saving surgery on her airways. She left the hospital with orders for supportive care, including oxygen, round-the-clock nursing care and therapy.
Over time, Ajshay James raised more concerns about her daughter’s health. Doctors prescribed anti-seizure medications and diagnosed Harper with a form of diabetes. They prescribed medication to regulate her urine output.
When Harper was not quite two years old, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, forcing Ajshay James and Harper out of their home and to a satellite campus of Texas Children’s Hospital.
This is where the accusations of medical child abuse began for Ajshay James. Doctors began to suspect within 24 hours of her admittance that Harper might not need many of the medications and interventions she was still using.
They suggested weaning Harper from her oxygen tank. James was initially hesitant, but reluctantly agreed. A sleep study showed Harper was clear to breathe room air. Oxygen tanks would no longer be necessary. Medical records show that Ajshay James responded, “‘We prayed for this … Very happy to hear the good news.’”
Her response wasn’t enough to stop the doctors and social workers who were building a medical child abuse case behind her back.
Harper was discharged from the hospital after about a week, but just two days later, CPS showed up at the home where Harper and her mom were staying. Using a mix of scare tactics and untruths, they convinced James to bring Harper back to the hospital.
Once there, the real nightmare began. A social worker took Harper from her mother, citing claims of medical child abuse. Over the course of the following week, James felt pressured to sign document after document, agreeing to a separation.
James and her daughter have been separated for close to two years, only seeing one another during supervised twice-monthly visits. Harper is in state custody, but lives with her paternal grandparents.
Doctors successfully weaned Harper from all but one of her medical interventions once she was removed from her mother’s care.
That’s all we need to know, right? Cut and dry. Ajshay James must be just like Dee Dee Blanchard, exploiting her child and creating fake medical scenarios to satisfy her own deep need for attention.
But it’s not that simple.
The fact that Harper was still receiving treatments she no longer needed isn’t enough to prove that she never needed them to begin with. Her health may have improved over time. Maybe her medically untrained mother didn’t know how to question the course of treatment. It could be that Harper was misdiagnosed by a medical doctor long before the hurricane.
Maybe Ajshay James is a NICU mom suffering with PTSD from watching her newborn baby fight for her life. Perhaps she didn’t purposefully exaggerate Harper’s conditions. It could be that she was so afraid of losing her daughter, that every tiny twitch and cough felt catastrophic to her.
There’s no doubt Harper was receiving treatments she didn’t need, but that alone cannot be enough to call her mother a child abuser. Doctors still had to agree to these treatments. She did not create this plan for Harper alone.
Why didn’t anyone at Texas Children’s sit Ajshay James down and discuss changing Harper’s treatment plan? Why wasn’t she given the chance to agree to wean her off all her medications and interventions? She wasn’t refusing their care or their medical advice.
It’s because the hospital had already branded her an abuser. According to Dr. Jeanine Graf, the chief medical officer at Texas Children’s Hospital West Campus, “in cases of medical abuse or fabricated illness, it is really contraindicated to bring this up to the perpetrator.”
In the months after the state took Harper away, Ajshay James passed a psychological evaluation. CPS “found no evidence to support the state’s concern that James might have a personality disorder that would have led her to fabricate her daughter’s symptoms.”
It’s been two years, but this battle is far from over for Ajshay James. She might never be unified with her child, even though, according to NBC News, James has never charged been with a crime associated with this incident. “And after more than a year, Child Protective Services agreed to walk away, permitting James to maintain her parental rights and allowing her to negotiate a custody arrangement with [her child’s father.]”
It is critically important that hospitals and social workers do their best to protect children, even from their own parents if necessary. There is no doubt that children need the care and support of these important individuals. Medical child abuse is real. No child deserves to suffer at the hands of a parent in this way.
But there are cases like this too, where families are torn apart, children separated from their loving parents. James has no criminal case against her, and she has been cleared by mental health professionals, but she’s still separated from her daughter. She’s been left to sort out custody and reunification arrangements on her own. Permanently taking a child from her mother in these circumstances is cruel and unwarranted. It will, without a doubt, impact them mentally and emotionally in the years to come.
While we will always support steps to keep our kids safer from medical child abuse, we need to be careful not to sweep up innocent parents into the riptide. That might just be what happened here.