Fabricated or induced illness: From "Munchausen by proxy" to child and family-oriented action

Child Abuse Negl. 2020 Oct:108:104649. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104649. Epub 2020 Aug 14.


Background: In fabricated or induced illness (FII), a child is harmed due to caregiver(s) behaviour and actions, carried out to convince mainly doctors that the child's physical and/or psychological health is more impaired than in reality. Harm is caused directly by the caregivers(s) and also often inadvertently by doctors' responses.

Objectives: To describe: dynamics underlying FII; wider definition of FII; alerting signs for early recognition of possible FII; respective responsibilities of health, social care, education.

Methods: Literature review, clinical experience, expert opinion.

Results and conclusions: Caregivers are motivated by gain from having their child treated as ill, and/or by erroneous beliefs about their child's health, either way needing medical confirmation about their contentions. Their behaviour is therefore directed primarily towards doctors. Most cases of FII present unexplained discrepancies between caregiver reports/actions and independent observations of the child. More rarely, the child has actual signs of illness, induced by the caregiver, occasionally fatal. Children are harmed in all aspects of life: health, daily functioning including education, and psychologically. Harm emanates directly from the caregiver(s) but also unintentionally from medical responses. Illness induction and clear deception by the caregiver require immediate child protection. Otherwise, the initial focus is on assessing the child's current health and functioning rather than caregiver's mental health. If, beyond verified illness, there is no medical explanation for the child's reported ill-health, the family require help to function better. This requires co-ordinated, multidisciplinary rehabilitation and long-term monitoring. If caregivers refuse rehabilitation, child protection is required. Several unanswered questions remain.

Keywords: Alerting signs; Fabricated or induced illness (FII); Medical child abuse; Munchausen by proxy; Perplexing presentations.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Caregivers* / psychology
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology
  • Child Protective Services
  • Child Welfare
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy* / diagnosis
  • Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy* / epidemiology
  • Siblings
  • Social Support