February 24, 2003 7:39 AM   Subscribe

She never asked for anything. Everything I ever did was voluntary. Mother tricks community (and her daughter) into believing that her daughter has leukaemia. I suppose scams like this are so successful because you just don't make stuff like this up, right? The article doesn't mention it but is this what they call Munchausen's by Proxy?
posted by jontyjago (17 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Munchausen by proxy is usually when a parent gradually poisons a child in order to get attention and sympathy from whomever.
posted by SweetJesus at 7:43 AM on February 24, 2003

SweetJesus, that is technically correct, but I've heard the term extended to refer to such Web-based scams as KayceeNicole.
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:45 AM on February 24, 2003

Well, KayceeNicole didn't exist, so it's not technically Munchausen by proxy. It is however probably some derivative of Munchausen syndrome.
posted by SweetJesus at 7:52 AM on February 24, 2003

I think the difference is between financial scam and mental illness.
posted by twine42 at 7:55 AM on February 24, 2003

Actually, the definition of Muchausen by Proxy (MBP) I've always used is when a caretaker "exxagerates, fabricates, and/or induces" physical or psychological illness in their charge.

What's really striking in this case is that the father claims that he had no knowledge of the hoax. Either he's lying through his teeth, or he was so detached from his daughter's life that he didn't realize that the whole thing was fabricated. Either way, it doesn't reflect terribly well on him.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:58 AM on February 24, 2003

SweetJesus is partially correct, but Munchausen's by proxy is not only poisoning, but any kind of exaggeration, fabrication or induction of a problem in someone else (usually a child) to gain some kind of internal gratification, such as attention. I think that this doesn't qualify as MBP because it was done for external gratification... Money. On preview, Johnny Assay beat me to it.

Denial may be a part of the reason the father didn't realize, if he truly wasn't in on the scam. Who would want to beleive their wife was capable of such a heinous act, especially with the mental damage that was likely done to the daughter? Some people have truly breathtaking abilities of denial.
posted by CoFenchurch at 8:08 AM on February 24, 2003

"Trust," the young American social theorist Jedediah Purdy wrote recently in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, "is the one attitude that has steadily fallen since social scientists began measuring it."
posted by troutfishing at 8:31 AM on February 24, 2003

Unbelievable. That poor little girl - I can't even imagine what this is going to do to her.
posted by orange swan at 8:33 AM on February 24, 2003

This may have been Munchausen by proxy. After all, the mother never asked for money originally. She just told everyone her daughter had leukemia, and people started giving her money of their own accord, so she took it, then started milking the situation.
posted by orange swan at 8:38 AM on February 24, 2003

If found guilty, Robert and Terri Milbrandt could each face up to 10 years in prison and fines of $22,500.

Weird that if they did it online, they probably would have gotten away with it, scot free.
posted by mathowie at 8:42 AM on February 24, 2003

I think the difference between this and Kaycee Nicole is that a real child was made sick to support the hoax, so law enforcement officials were motivated to find as many charges as they could. Debbie Swenson could have been charged with mail fraud or some other crime for her scam, but there was neither a victim or local constituency pressuring a prosecutor to make it happen.
posted by rcade at 9:08 AM on February 24, 2003

My candidate for best line ever was Aaron's early diagnosis of the Kaycee Nicole epic as munchausen's by email-proxy. Turns out he and acridrabbit were right, but took a lot of heat for it at first.
posted by JackFlash at 9:12 AM on February 24, 2003

There's more about this from the local Urbana paper.
Reese said Terri Milbrandt researched the effects of leukemia and got her daughter to pose as a leukemia patient, giving the child sleeping pills and shaving her head.

He said the mother researched types of leukemia that could later go into remission and allow the child to “recover.”

Terri Milbrandt reportedly placed a bandage on the girl’s back to cover a supposed “port” where chemotherapy was administered and had her daughter in counseling to prepare her for death, Reese said.

The child “thought she was dying,” Reese said. “Mom did a lot of homework. Nobody would have ever known.”
I'll admit a certain bias, here. Thirteen years ago, I was diagnosed with leukemia. It was hard enough, then, twenty years old or whatever, to think about the fact that I might be dead in a few months. I can't even imagine having to go through that as a seven year old.

And I think it's an attempt to be glib, matthowie, but even if they'd done this online, they wouldn't get away scott free. This girl wasn't some fictional character, but the mother needed to create a convincing fiction nonetheless. You shave your daughter's head and give her sleeping pills and bring her to fundraisers and basically introduce her to a world that nobody wants to be introduced to, well, online or not, you should expect some serious punishment.

One other point (again, I'll admit that this one hit close to home when I first read about it, and it still pisses me off): it's not as if the mother simply mentioned that her daughter had leukemia, and people suddenly opened their wallets without giving it a second thought. She planned this. She knew that other than fatigue and hair loss, leukemia patients have few obvious, external symptoms. She did her research, and she convinced her daughter, and regardless of whether or not she actually asked anybody for money, she sure as hell didn't turn it down when it started to roll in. Just like she'd knew it would.
posted by RKB at 12:24 PM on February 24, 2003

what happened with Debbie Swenson in the end?
posted by kv at 6:36 PM on February 24, 2003

Other than embarassment via an article in the local paper, kv, nothing -- and I had to close down (well, moderate and stop approving posts) the Yahoo group because Debbie, and/or some of her more bizarre friends, continued to play sock puppet games. It turned out that most of the tales of money and gifts sent to "Kaycee" were exaggerated.

MBP is, of course, a key plot point of the film The Sixth Sense (giving away part of the twist). And Kaycee Nicole was done a few months back by Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but there it was like this one -- and unlike Kaycee Nicole -- an intentional scam that netted thousands.

For me reading bwg's defense of Kaycee right after aaron's comment is really hard.
posted by dhartung at 9:59 PM on February 24, 2003


i guess i'm just glad a child wasn't forcefed sleeping pills in the Swenson case.
posted by kv at 3:43 AM on February 25, 2003

Offtopic: Jedediah Purdy. What a tool that guy is.

troutfishing, you're generally a pretty level-headed individual. Do you cite him in praise? Convince me that he's anything but the hectoring nag he appears to be...
posted by adamgreenfield at 4:09 AM on February 25, 2003

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