Over two dozen families have recently come forward with troubling accusations against Dr. Debra Esernio-Jenssen, former director of the John Van Blake Child Advocacy Center at Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN). The families claim that she has been over-diagnosing cases of medical child abuse, commonly known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy and also referred to as “Factitious disorder imposed on another” or “Fabricated illness by carers.” This disorder involves caregivers, often mothers, fabricating or inducing symptoms in children to falsely portray them as sick, seeking sympathy and attention.
To illustrate the gravity of such cases, one can look at the well-known case of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her mother Dee Dee. Dee Dee manipulated Gypsy’s symptoms using medications, leading to a series of misdiagnoses, including leukemia, muscular dystrophy, asthma, and sleep apnea. Gypsy, perceived as a wheelchair-bound and chronically ill girl, eventually became suspicious of her mother’s actions and conspired with her boyfriend to end her mother’s life. This shocking case has been extensively covered in documentaries like “The Prison Confessions of Gypsy Rose Blanchard” on Lifetime and “Mommy Dead and Dearest” on Hulu.
Adding to the concern, many families seeking medical care at Lehigh Valley Health Network were unaware of Dr. Esernio-Jenssen’s questionable professional background. Unbeknownst to them, Dr. Esernio-Jenssen had been removed from previous child abuse advocacy roles and labeled as a “combative and unreliable witness” by family court judges, raising questions about her professional credibility.
In June 2022, a family that lost temporary custody of their daughter as a result of Dr. Esernio-Jenssen’s involvement with her medical care brought their case to the attention of a local newspaper, resulting in an investigative series. This initiative led to the formation of an advocacy group named Parents’ Medical Rights Group (PMRG). The PMRG co-founder reached out to Lehigh Valley County Controller, Mark Pinsley, revealing multiple families facing accusations of medical child abuse. Pinsley’s subsequent 2023 report exposed systemic over-diagnosing of medical child abuse by Lehigh and Northampton counties, accounting for one-third of all cases reported in Pennsylvania between 2017-2021. More affected families shared their stories at a Lehigh County Board of Commissioners meeting in the summer of 2023 and a Northampton County Council meeting in the fall of 2023, highlighting unjust family separations at the hands of Dr. Esernio-Jenssen and LVHN. Families affected by Dr. Esernio-Jenssen’s false Munchausen syndrome by proxy diagnoses are grappling with trauma, facing the harsh reality of temporary or permanent loss of custody of their children due to baseless allegations.
Following Pinsley’s report, Dr. Debra Esernio-Jenssen was removed as the director of the John Van Blake Child Advocacy Center at Lehigh Valley Health Network.
The issue of unfounded medical child abuse accusations extends beyond Lehigh Valley, as highlighted by the Netflix documentary “Take Care of Maya.” This film sheds light on Maya Kowalski’s heartbreaking experience at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Medical Center, where the legitimacy of her Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) was questioned by the attending medical team and her mother, Beata, was wrongly diagnosed with Munchausen syndrome by proxy. The documentary emphasizes the devastating impact of such false accusations, showcasing Beata Kowalski’s tragic suicide due to the potential permanent separation from her daughter. Other families featured in the documentary share similar experiences, illustrating the urgent need for change within the system.
At Friedman Schuman, we empathize with the deep wounds inflicted on families by false accusations of medical child abuse. Recognizing the courage needed to challenge such unjust claims, our team of experienced medical malpractice attorneys stands ready to support those who have been wrongly accused by Lehigh Valley Health Network or other health networks in Pennsylvania. If you find yourself in such a situation, do not hesitate to reach out to our dedicated legal professionals for assistance.
McHugh, Blakely. “Embattled LVHN Doctor Replaced, but Families Say More Still Needs to Be Done.” WFMZ.Com, 8 Sept. 2023, www.wfmz.com/news/area/lehighvalley/embattled-lvhn-doctor-replaced-but-families-say-more-still-needs-to-be-done/article_3b4340ea-4e5e-11ee-a73f-e74ec199cc8b.html.
McHugh, Blakely. “Lehigh Co. Controller’s Report Alleging Child Abuse Misdiagnoses: What Does It Mean?” WFMZ.Com, 24 Aug. 2023, www.wfmz.com/news/area/lehighvalley/lehigh-co-controllers-report-alleging-child-abuse-misdiagnoses-what-does-it-mean/article_08dd06e6-42a0-11ee-8117-330f7831630e.html.
O’Brien, Theresa. “Outcry Grows over Pennsylvania Child Abuse Pediatrics Program.” Medical News, MedpageToday, 22 Nov. 2023, www.medpagetoday.com/special-reports/exclusives/107490.
Pradelli, Chad, and Cheryl Mettendorf. “Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy Diagnoses under Question in Lehigh County.” 6abc Philadelphia, 24 Aug. 2023, 6abc.com/munchausen-syndrome-by-proxy-msp-medical-diagnoses-lehigh-county-children-and-youth-controller-mark-pinsley/13690742/.