WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) — Experts say the case of a mother accused of poisoning her 5-year-old son to death with salt appears be an example of how social media feeds into Munchausen by proxy, a disorder in which caretakers purposely harm children and then bask in the attention and sympathy.
Lacey Spears, of Scottsville, Kentucky, has pleaded not guilty to charges of depraved murder and manslaughter in the January death of her son, Garnett-Paul Spears, whose sodium levels rose to an extremely dangerous level with no medical explanation.
As Spears moved around the country — Alabama, Florida and eventually New York — she kept friends updated on her son's frequent hospitalizations with photos and musings on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and a blog.
"My sweet angel is in the hospital for the 23rd time," she tweeted in 2009. A series of reports on the case by The Journal News, which covers the New York suburbs, found she kept it up right through her son's death, with 28 posts in the last 11 days of Garnett's life, including, "Garnett the great journeyed onward today at 10:20 a.m."
Dr. Marc Feldman, a psychiatrist and forensic consultant in Birmingham, Alabama, who wrote the book "Playing Sick," said he believes the Internet has contributed to the number of Munchausen by proxy cases, estimated from one study to be more than 600 a year in the U.S.
In a case exposed in 2011 in Great Britain, a childless 21-year-old woman joined an Internet forum for parents, claiming to have five children and chronicling her nonexistent baby's battle with celiac disease and bacterial meningitis. Doctors at Seattle Children's Hospital found three cases of mothers who falsely blogged that their children were near death and were rewarded with support.
"There are instantly accessible and endlessly supportive groups out there that will pray with you and cry with you if you purport your child to be ill," Feldman said.
Mark Sirkin, director of the mental health counseling program at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, said that with social media, "you can expand your circle from the people you know to strangers who you've never met — you're just getting that much more attention."
While prosecutors and defense attorneys in the Spears case have yet to mention Munchausen in court papers or hearings, experts say the disorder could play a role because Spears fits the pattern of caregivers who invent, exaggerate or cause a health problem in someone in their care and then seek to portray themselves as a hero.
Spears, who was living in suburban New York when her son died, is accused of administering sodium through a feeding tube he had in his stomach while he was hospitalized at Westchester Medical Center. Prosecutors say she did it in the bathroom, where there were no surveillance cameras.
"This mother was intentionally feeding her child salt at toxic levels," Westchester County prosecutor Doreen Lloyd said at Spears' arraignment. She also alleged that Spears had done Internet research on the effects of sodium and that Spears had tried to dispose of a bag tainted with sodium by asking a friend to "get rid of it and don't tell anybody."
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