`Female' abuse syndrome crosses sex divide

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The Independent Online
A BIZARRE form of child abuse thought to be carried out only by women can be perpetrated by men, too, according to a study.

A series of cases in which fathers smothered or poisoned their children in order to get medical attention is described in the medical journal Archives of Disease in Childhood. The fathers dosed their children with salt, caffeine or rat poison, or smothered them until they passed out to make them appear ill and obtain medical attention.

The fathers were diagnosed as suffering from Munchausen syndrome by proxy by Professor Sir Roy Meadow, the consultant paediatrician who first described the syndrome in the late 1960s. Professor Meadow said that for 10 years after identifying the condition he believed it only affected women but he had since come across 15 families where the father was involved.

Munchausen syndrome, from which many of the men were also suffering, involves patients inventing ailments which trigger medical investigations as a way of gaining attention. In the proxy version, the child is made the object of the investigations.

In most cases the fathers had taken their children to accident and emergency departments with the story that they had stopped breathing or been found shaking, having a fit or unconscious. Usually they had been smothered and in several cases the fathers had attempted resuscitation.

Often the fathers were difficult and demanding in hospital. One conducted a crusade on behalf of his daughter, seeking expert opinions from round the country. In another, the father bought medical books and equipment and took blood, administered enemas and performed other tests on his four- year-old son.

Many of the men were pathological liars, inventing stories about fighting alongside the Duke of York in the Falklands War, writing a screenplay for Steven Spielberg, being the victim of burglaries or of strangers abducting their children. Professor Meadow writes: "From the descriptions of some of their lives, at least six of them would have vied with Baron Munchausen himself in terms of dramatic and untruthful stories."