Beyond Gypsy Blancharde: When Mothers Harm Their Kids for Attention
Before her murder, Dee Dee Blancharde reveled in the world’s pity. By 2015, the 48-year-old mother from Missouri had managed to convince just about every Make-a-Wish-sized charity that her wheelchair-ridden daughter Gypsy Rose was dying of natural causes. This month, Buzzfeed published a detailed report of the 2015 murder, introducing readers to one of psychology’s most controversial conditions: Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, an extremely divisive “syndrome” that many consider to be one of the most dangerous forms of child abuse. Throughout her life, Blancharde fed Gypsy seizure medication, shaved her tiny head, and confined the growing child to a wheelchair for years – all so that Gypsy would appear ill. Petite and toothless, Gypsy Rose was her mother’s cash cow. So when the small, sickly girl emerged from her wheelchair to take knife-wielding selfies shortly before posting “The bitch is dead!” on Facebook, her actions begged the question, was the killing of Dee Dee Blancharde an act of self-defense from years of sadistic abuse, or cold, premeditated murder?
Children raised by mothers with Munchausen’s by proxy live through unfathomable abuse and manipulation. In 2003, Arizona mother Blanca Montano was caught on tape contaminating her infant daughter’s IV with fecal matter. In 2009, former chemist Hope Ybarra drained her daughter’s blood with a syringe and faked tests for cystic fibrosis. Just two years ago, Lacey Spears was convicted of murder in the second degree after slowly poisoning her five-year-old son with lethal amounts of salt. People with Munchausen’s syndrome typically feign their own illnesses. Munchausen’s by proxy, however, is when the caregiver (predominantly adult females with a history of abuse) intentionally sickens their patient to maintain sympathy and attention. Gypsy Rose narrowly escaped her mother’s torture by enlisting her boyfriend, Nick Godejohn, to stab her to death, but other victims are not so lucky. Here, five other fascinating court cases that have linked Munchausen’s by proxy to intense sickness – and even homicide.
When mommy blogger Lacey Spears was convicted for the murder of her beloved five-year-old son Garnett, thousands of Spears' social media followers were absolutely shocked. For years prior, the young Kentucky mother had taken to the Internet for support by documenting Garnett's various health struggles. Lacey exhaustively blogged Garnett's medical journey, all the while hiding the one thing that was keeping him sick: unbeknownst to Lacey's faithful supporters, she had been secretly poisoning the child with life-threatening doses of salt through a feeding tube.
In the winter of 2014, Garnett passed away in a New York hospital from toxic amounts of sodium in his bloodstream. Detectives were sent to Spears' home where they discovered Garnett's medications tucked behind a large can of salt. It was then revealed that Spears had asked a neighbor to enter their home and dispose of Garnett's feeding bag which was allegedly filled with the equivalent of 69 packets of salt.
After a highly publicized two-week trial, Spears was sentenced 20-years-to-life for the second degree murder of Garnett. The New York prosecutors called her actions, "nothing short of torture." Death by salt poisoning is extremely painful, and Garnett spent his last days screaming in agony (the hospital-room videos are disturbing) before the decision was made to take him off of life support. The defense blamed the hospital for both the elevated levels of sodium in Garnett's blood and his subsequent death. Spears maintains her innocence and vehemently insists that she does not have Munchausen's Syndrome by proxy. Obviously, the judge thought otherwise, citing "mental illness she refuses to acknowledge."
In 2011, 23-year-old Blanca Montano of Tuscon, Arizona was sentenced to thirteen years in prison after allegedly infecting her hospitalized infant daughter with foreign bacterias, including fecal matter. Months before Montano's arrest, her two young children tested positive for E. Coli, a dangerous bacteria found in human waste. While her eldest son had a normal recovery, Montano's seven month-old daughter continued to fall suspiciously ill, contracting infection after infection. Over the girl's month-long hospital stay, doctors treated her for nine rare and unusual infections that placed her in intensive care. Determined to keep up the ruse, Montano demanded they administer a completely unnecessary bone marrow biopsy.
Once the medical team realized they could be dealing with a case of Munchausen's Syndrome by proxy, a camera was installed in the infant's hospital room to monitor the mother's behavior while she was alone with her. What they found was horrifying. Not only was Montano caught on tape contaminating the baby's IV by sticking it into her own mouth, but she brazenly acknowledged the camera as she attempted to cover its lens. According to a witness, Montano was seen throughout the hospital carrying syringes in her purse.
The police alerted Child Protective Services, who quickly prohibited Montano from visiting her daughter in the southern Arizona hospital. As suspected, the little girl's health began to improve significantly. Montano continues to maintain her innocence while the prosecution argued she kept the child sick in an attempt to win back the attention of the baby's father.
Former chemist and mother of three Hope Ybarra had a flare for the dramatic. She documented her very public battle with cancer in a detailed online updates that culminated in posts about picking out colors for her casket. Her "bravery" after three bouts of cancer made Ybarra the soft-spoken darling of local Texas news. The diagnosis was most devastating to her daughters, however, who were made to believe they were about to lose their mother. The youngest daughter, born prematurely, had her own host of medical issues. But when Ybarra's lies began to unravel, first about her own health and then that of her children, suspicions arose that pulled out an endless thread of medical fraud and feigned diagnoses.
Ybarra was never sick, and neither was her youngest daughter, until Ybarra poisoned her with stolen pathogens that sent the child into anaphylactic shock. Later, the Fort Worth mother admitted to using nasal spray to alter the results of a sweat test for Cystic Fibrosis and draining her daughter's blood little by little with a syringe. "There are many things I could have done that would have straight up killed her," pled Ybarra after receiving a 10-year sentence for inflicting bodily injury on a child. "Obviously I was hurting her, but I wasn't trying to."
Upon further investigation, holes continued to appear in her daughter's medical history, including 30 to 40 unneeded hospital procedures. Ybarra eventually admitted that she wanted people to "pay attention," a classic symptom of a person with Munchausen's syndrome by proxy. Ybarra has been incarcerated at the Gatesville Texas prison for nearly eight years and will become eligible for parole in 2019.
The story of Marybeth Tinning and her nine deceased children goes down as one of the most puzzling and fatal cases of Munchausen's Syndrome by proxy in the history of the disorder. Between the years of 1967 and 1985, Tinning, a wife and mother in upstate New York, gave birth to and buried every single one of her young children, often within months.
The eldest, Barbara Ann, was born in 1967. By 1972, both she and her two siblings had passed away, starting with eight-day-old Jennifer, who is the only Tinning child believed to have died of natural causes. The rest fell like dominos, not a single one living past the age of four.
While Tinning repeatedly sought the attention of emergency room doctors, no one seemed to find her actions suspicious. They simply looked for symptoms, found none, and sent the woman and her child home. But Tinning brought them back, one by one, claiming they mysteriously died at home from "seizures," "going blue," and "cardiac arrest." By the fifth death, they were at least calling it Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Rumors began to circulate in the town of Schenectady, New York that the Tinning family suffered from "a death gene." She was allegedly asked why bring more babies into the world if they're destined to die so shortly after, to which Tinning calmly responded, "That's what women are supposed to do."
After fourteen years of deaths, Tinning was finally arrested for the murders of Barbara Ann, Joseph, Jennifer, Mary Francis, Timothy, Nathan, Michael, Jonathan, and Tami Lynne Tinning. The only murder the police could prove, however, was the smothering death of the youngest child Tami Lynne. Tinning was arrested, charged with the second degree murder of Tami Lynne, convicted and sentenced to 20 years to life. She ultimately confessed to also having smothered Nathan and Timothy, though it is widely believed she killed eight total. Tinning, who is now in her 70s and likely in prison for the rest of her life, says she has and would like to volunteering to care for sick inmates. All five of Tinning's parole attempts were denied.
Lisa Hayden Johnson
Lisa Hayden Johnson had grown accustomed to the luxury of other people's sympathy after her son was born dangerously premature. Once he began to heal, the fame-hungry British mother appeared on daytime television to inform viewers that her son was now suffering from a life-threatening food allergy that left him unable to eat.
"What a brave little boy," thought the countless viewers and talk show hosts Johnson fooled into showering her and her son with gifts. She spoke to magazines, was given free tickets to live tapings and accepted multiple cars and cruises from charity foundations. Of course the innocent boy at the center of all this believed in his imaginary condition. He'd spent his life hooked up feeding tube he never needed, plopped down into a wheelchair he learned to rely on, and even received the Children of Courage Award from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife.
After six years, doctors became suspicious of the boy's lack of symptoms and demanded to perform further testing. In an effort to delay this from happening, Johnson falsely claimed that she'd been sexually assaulted. The hospital, however, discovered that Johnson had been "spiking" her son's urine with glucose, and the Brixham native was publicly disgraced. Johnson was arrested in October 2007 on the charge of child cruelty and "perverting the system of justice." Despite public outrage, Johnson was given the lenient sentence of just over three years in prison.