WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – 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.
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.
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.
According to court documents, Spears told police she used only a pinch of salt for flavor when feeding her son fruits and vegetables through his tube.
Spears said the feeding tube was necessary because Garnett couldn’t keep food down. Some friends told the Journal News they saw no sign of that. They were also confused by her claims that Garnett’s father was killed in a car accident. A man who says he’s the father lives in Alabama.
Spears’ lawyers won’t comment on whether a psychiatric defense is planned. But by using a depraved murder charge, the district attorney seems to be taking a disorder like Munchausen into consideration.
Louisa Lasher, an Atlanta-area consultant in child abuse cases, said parents who have the syndrome do not love children in the way that most people do.
Most cases rarely end in death because the child is the goose that lays the golden egg for somebody who’s so needy of attention, Sirkin said. It would defeat the purpose to kill the child. Feldman said that often when a death occurs, it’s because of a miscalculation.