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Texas Court Upholds Medical Child Abuse Verdict

Mother subjected son to 2 unnecessary surgeries.

Published: February 22, 2012

A Texas court rejected the appeals of a mother who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for "medical child abuse" that included subjecting her oldest son to 2 invasive - and unnecessary - surgeries by the time he was 6 years old.

A jury convicted Laurie Lea Williamson on 2 counts of injury to a child, a first-degree felony, in 2008. These offenses were intensified by the jury's decision that the scalpels used in surgery in essence constituted "deadly weapons" in Ms. Williamson's abuse.

Munchausen syndrome by proxy is a mental illness in which a caregiver is fixated with the need to obtain medical treatment and procedures for a patient who is not sick, or was not sick before symptoms were fabricated or induced. Researchers speculate that those afflicted with this disorder are drawn by a desire for the attention or in some cases the donations from friends and the community that the sham illnesses bring.

At trial in Houston, Harris County prosecutors alleged that Munchausen syndrome by proxy drove Ms. Williamson to hamper her children's growth and development and saddle them with unneeded medical interventions.

Ms. Williamson gave birth to her first child, named in court records as C.W., in March 1995. By the time he was 5, he'd been diagnosed with and was medicated for Crohn's disease, Tourette's syndrome, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Ms. Williamson's reports that he suffered epileptic seizures led to inconclusive testing and medication and, in January 2001, surgery to implant a vagal nerve stimulator, which ultimately did not control the seizures. C.W.'s apparent failure to grow led to the placement of a nasal feeding tube which, in a December 2001 surgery, was replaced by a gastrostomy feeding tube.

Her son, D.W., born in May 1997, and her daughter, L.W., born in September 1999 - whom she raised as a single mother following a divorce after L.W.'s birth - also suffered from a list of debilitating, growth- and development-stunting and treatment-resistant disorders that kept them on restricted, feeding-tube-delivered diets, in wheelchairs and wearing incontinence diapers.

The children's poor health and welfare raised concerns among hospital physicians; teachers at C.W.'s school (before his mother withdrew him for home schooling); the physical, speech and occupational therapists who visited the house; and neighbors who baby-sat them. They appeared to be malnourished; suffered limited stimulation, growth and independence; and lived in a house kept dark and cold, with few opportunities to play outdoors. Ms. Williamson frequently mentioned that they were not expected to live past their teens.

When Ms. Williamson fell seriously ill herself in March 2005 and, bedridden, was unable to care for the children, her friends, local volunteers and a home health nurse visited to lend a hand. "During this time when others were caring for the children, the children's health dramatically improved," say court records. They grew, gained weight, walked and appeared healthier and happier. One friend, realizing the ruse, reported Ms. Williamson's actions to the county (for the second time) and the children were removed from the home in March 2006.

At Ms. Williamson's trial, prosecutors accused her of underfeeding, overmedicating and depriving her children. A jury rejected her defense that, as an overprotective mother, she reported symptoms to physicians, whose diagnoses and treatments were reasonable medical care and convicted her on 2 counts of injury to a child.

While she appealed the verdict and its 15 years' imprisonment, the appeals court ruled in May 2010 that the evidence supported the jury's findings that Ms. Williamson knew what she was doing, that C.W.'s surgeries were unnecessary and unreasonable, that they caused him serious bodily injury, and that the surgeons' scalpels represented deadly weapons in the child abuse.

Ms. Williamson's attorney and representatives of the Harris County District Attorney's Office did not return calls seeking comment.

David Bernard

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