Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy: Special Education Style

I know I am not officially authorized to identify a new medical condition; but I believe that the special education version of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy is a real thing and should be something that is diagnosed and treated.  For those of you who don’t know, Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy is a form of child abuse where a parent seeks unneeded medical attention for exaggerated or induced illnesses.

In the special education version, a parent believes that their child needs special education and fabricates “symptoms” of a disability in order to qualify their child for special education or for additional services within special education.  I know this sounds crazy, but I have witnessed this situation in the extreme on three different occasions.  I didn’t really recognize it the first time, but by the second and third instance I knew exactly what I was seeing.  In the most tragic situation, a Mother with two adopted children kept demanding more and more services for her children, even though there appeared to be very little need when the kids were at school; the children came to our district already diagnosed, so the fact that they were entitled was already established when they enrolled in our district.

The Mother would tell us crazy stories about behaviors and demand the most extensive modifications I had ever heard.  She wrote proposed page Fs for both kids and they were pages long, including such things as having the teacher go through her son’s backpack at the beginning and end of every class and twice daily phone calls to her to make sure she was kept apprised of anything that happened with her students.  Once we gained the trust of her children, they began to tell us what went on at home; one of the saddest stories was how one night she punched holes in the walls and destroyed her son’s bedroom and then calmly told him that she was calling the police to tell them that he had done the damage.  She also would hurt herself in front of them and then tell all of us that the kids assaulted her.  Unfortunately, we could not save the children from this mentally ill adult; they both ended up in residential placement and were so damaged by what had been done to them that they both had made serious attempts at suicide before they were removed from the home.

Another, even darker, version of this is the Munchausen by Proxy syndrome I have seen in teachers; I have encountered this twice in my career, so not sure it is as rare as I hope it to be.  In this scenario, a teacher fabricates or instigates behaviors in her/his students to gain attention for him/herself.  In both situations, the teacher worked with students with significant behaviors.  One of the teachers would restrain multiple students every day.  I remember when I first heard about her, it was from other staff who thought she was so amazing and felt so bad for her that she had to put up with all those kids with such terrible behaviors.

As I got closer to this situation, I realized that when she was engaged in a situation where she restrained a student, she appeared to get a physical high during and after the event.  Afterwards, she would go all through the building, telling staff person after staff person what she had gone through, often times showing the bruises or marks that were left after the encounter.  When we added a BD room at another elementary and  moved a couple of her students we realized that the students she was restraining multiple times per week did not need any restraints in the new classroom.  Eventually, we prohibited her from restraining any students and she still managed to create situations when she “had” to get physically involved with students.

This is a phenomenon that we all need to be aware of; as crazy as it sounds, it is a real thing that can be terribly dangerous for the children involved.  Be especially cautious of parents who detail behavior you never see in the school setting or who ask for services that far exceed what the child appears to need.  With teachers, be vigilant when supervising any staff person that is involved in restraining students and make sure that they are well trained, that all restraints are done with a team of staff members, and that restraint is always the last resort.  Most importantly, listen to the student; if they tell you that things are not the way they seem; either in the classroom or home; you need to take the time to listen and investigate.

(February, 2014)