This is a post by Sarah Phillimore. I was recently alerted to a Radio 5 Live Investigation into ‘Fabricated and Induced Illness’ [FII] in May 2019. I think this is a useful opportunity to explore FII in more detail for readers of this site.
I am Amy.
Thank you to BBC for conducting this investigation and interview.
— ScotsMumGuidetoChildProtection (@MumScots) May 5, 2019
The history of Fabricated and Induced Illness [FII]
Concerns that parents may exaggerate or even cause their children’s symptoms of illness have been around for a long time. It used to come with the flowery title ‘Munchausens Syndrome by Proxy’, from the fictional character Baron Munchausen who told outrageous lies about his non existent achievements.
Obviously, this description was confusing to many parents and professionals, as well as wrongly giving the impression that it was a psychiatric condition in its own right. As Kate Grieve commented in 2015, the case of R v LM  QCA 192 at para. 67 (4 June 2004) in the Supreme Court of Queensland, Australia, held that “the term factitious disorder (Munchausen’s Syndrome) by proxy is merely descriptive of a behaviour, not a psychiatrically identifiable illness or condition”. She further comments:
FII is not a mental illness as can be diagnosed. Perpetrators will have various psychological, psychiatric, and environmental features leading to the behaviour of fabricating or inducing illness in a child. FII is a form of child abuse where the perpetrator uses medical professionals as tools to subject the child to harm.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health of 2021 (see further reading below) refers to 3 different terminologies:
Medically Unexplained Symptoms (MUS) – a child’s symptoms, of which the child complains and which are presumed to be genuinely experienced, are not fully explained by any known pathology. The symptoms are likely based on underlying factors in the child (usually of a psychosocial nature) and this is acknowledged by both clinicians and parents. MUS can also be described as ‘functional disorders’ and are abnormal bodily sensations which cause pain and disability by affecting the normal functioning of the body. The health professionals and parents work collaboratively to achieve evidence-based therapeutic work in the best interests of the child or young person.
Perplexing Presentations (PP) – a term introduced to describe the commonly encountered situation when there are alerting signs of possible FII (not yet amounting to likely or actual significant harm1), when the actual state of the child’s physical, mental health and neurodevelopment is not yet clear, but there is no perceived risk of immediate serious harm to the child’s physical health or life. The essence of alerting signs is the presence of discrepancies between reports, presentations of the child and independent observations of the child, implausible descriptions and unexplained findings or parental behaviour. 3.2.3
Fabricated or Induced Illness (FII) – a clinical situation in which a child is, or is very likely to be, harmed due to parent(s) behaviour and action, carried out in order to convince doctors that the child’s state of physical and/or mental health and neurodevelopment is impaired (or more impaired than is actually the case). FII results in physical and emotional abuse and neglect, as a result of parental actions, behaviours or beliefs and from doctors’ responses to these. The parent does not necessarily intend to deceive, and their motivations may not be initially evident. It is important to distinguish the relationship between FII and physical abuse / non-accidental injury (NAI). In practice, illness induction is a form of physical abuse (and in Working Together to Safeguard Children, fabrication of symptoms or deliberate induction of illness in a child is included under Physical Abuse17). In order for this physical abuse to be considered under FII, evidence will be required that the parent’s motivation for harming the child is to convince doctors about the purported illness in the child and whether or not there are recurrent presentations to health and other professionals. This particularly applies in cases of suffocation or poisoning.
The NHS describe it in this way.
FII covers a wide range of symptoms and behaviours involving parents seeking healthcare for a child. This ranges from extreme neglect (failing to seek medical care) to induced illness.
Behaviours in FII include a mother or other carer who:
- persuades healthcare professionals that their child is ill when they’re perfectly healthy
- exaggerates or lies about their child’s symptoms
- manipulates test results to suggest the presence of illness – for example, by putting glucose in urine samples to suggest the child has diabetes
- deliberately induces symptoms of illness – for example, by poisoning her child with unnecessary medication or other substances
How widespread is FII?
FII It is undoubtedly a ‘real thing’ and can cause serious harm to children as well as a massive drain on NHS resources. But it is also a rare thing – it is difficult to estimate with certainty how many cases arise each year, but some estimate about 50. The NHS refer to one study which published in 2000 which estimated 89 cases of FII in a population of 100,000 over a two-year period. However, they believe this figure is a likely under-estimate of the actual number of cases.
Taking a figure of 50 per year, is on a par with statistics around children who are murdered; 330 children were killed between 2009 to 2015 i.e. about 47 per year. Compare this with road traffic accidents – in 2011, 2,412 children aged 0-15 years were killed or seriously injured on Britain’s roads. So about 7 children a day will die or be badly hurt on the roads as opposed to less than 1 a week being victim to FII.
Fiightback told Radio 5 Live that they had about 600 people seeking their support and 70% had been ‘cleared’. They had attempted FOI requests from LA to be told that no data was held about numbers of FII cases.
Concerns that cases of FII are rising
The group “Fiightback” was set up “to support those accused of FII, to fight for an unbaised criteria, a fair investigation and a pathway to rebuild the lives of those wrongly accused”. It shared with the BBC their worries about a ‘wave of false allegations’ of FII.
It now wants a review into the number of FII child protection investigations like Amy’s, as well as the FII guidelines for medical and social work staff.
It also wants national and local policy on responses to accusations of FII to be looked at, and new standards set.
Carol Monaghan MP – who has led calls in Parliament to raise awareness of FII – said she would support an inquiry.
She added: “Disturbingly, diagnoses can be made by health professionals who have not met or examined the child, and child protection procedures can then be instigated as a result of a remote diagnosis.”
I can’t comment on the statistics that inform that comment about ‘wave of false allegations’ because I don’t know them. I can’t find any references on the Fiightback website. All I can say that in my practice spanning 20 years I have only been instructed to act in a handful of FII cases. I have not encountered in the past few years any noticeable increase. And I would be very troubled if diagnosis of any medical condition was attempted by any doctor who had not actually met the child – unless this was a court authorised review of medical records collected by other doctors for e.g.
But if such concerns are raised, then it is right that they are properly investigated and we have clear evidence to either support or deny them. A suggestion was made in 2018 that such cases are on the rise because local authorities want to avoid paying for services – that is an extremely serious situation, if true. Andy Bilson commented to Radio 5 Live that the definition of FII appeared to be widening in some areas to include parents who ‘genuinely’ believed their child was ill – thus bringing into the net of suspicion those parents seeking services for their children.
Efficient and speedy investigation is needed.
FII brings the ‘perfect storm’ for a family justice system, already prone to risk averse decision making. FII represents something that doesn’t happen often, but when it does the consequences for child could be catastrophic. Little wonder then that many professionals may act defensively.
And of course, professionals are fallible. A decision made hastily to separate parents and child may turn out, after proper investigation to have been the wrong decision, based on imperfect understanding of the medical evidence as it initially presented. The Websters for example, whose child’s broken bones were caused by scurvy, rather than deliberate infliction of force. Sally Clark, who was convicted of murder on the failure of Professor Sir Roy Meadows to understand and apply statistics correctly.
We need a clear idea about how many cases there are and how many do not result in any findings against the parent – as the impact of such cases can be devastating if no findings are made. Amy, the mother interviewed by BBC Five Live commented :
I felt like my character was assassinated, my family was ripped apart and my child was stolen
So how do we manage these cases?
Few would disagree that if a competent medical practitioner raises a concern that a child is being hurt by a parent, that this needs to be investigated and the child kept safe while the investigation is carried out. The problem of course is that this investigation can often take many months or even years and throughout that time the child is likely to be living separately from his parents, although hopefully still having regular contact.
The key therefore must be to make sure investigations are carried out as efficiently and quickly as possible. The NHS guidance for medical professions highlights the necessary steps.
- Its important to have a senior paediatrician to carry out an overview of the case and to seek further specialist advice or testing if needed.
- A detailed chronology must be written of all the available information related to the child’s medical history.
- Doctors must contact the relevant child protection team of the local authority’s children’s services to inform them of the concerns.
- Other agencies involved with the child’s welfare, may be contacted in case they have information that’s relevant such as the child being absent from school.
- The police will also need to be informed and all professionals must meet to discuss the best way to proceed with the case.
- Covert (secret) video surveillance may be used to collect evidence that can help to confirm a suspected case of FII but this will require proper authorisation and is rare in practice as usually the parent will not be allowed unsupervised access to a child once concerns about FII are raised. For a discussion about surveillance of families by social workers, see this post from Pink Tape.
The LA will usually start care proceedings immediately and seek separation of child and parent, unless there are other family members who can help to provide constant supervision. There may well be parallel police and care proceedings – while care proceedings should never ‘wait’ for criminal proceedings to get started or conclude, it is clear that if a live police investigation is also on going, this has the potential to cause delay.
As ever the focus must be on the evidence – what is needed, who is best person to provide it, and how should it be tested. This are not easy cases and will require more than most continuity of Judge and lawyers.
Re X, Y and Z (Children)  EWHC – Application by local authority to withdraw from proceedings, under FPR r 4.5, for interim care of three children. Local authority ordered to contribute to the costs of the parents.
Concerns over Fake Illness Cases in Troubled GOSH department – April 2018 Melanie Newman
Safeguarding children in whom illness is fabricated or induced – 2008 Statutory guidance from Department of Education, on protecting children where carers or parents make a child ill or pretend a child is ill.
Regional Child Protection procedures for West Midlands – guidance on FII 2017