Silent Struggles: Parental Desperation

Welfare officials wield unchecked power, seizing children on flimsy pretexts—neighborly accusations, parental disputes, or even the medical complexities that baffle doctors. Nicole and Jasper Schijf, driven to desperation, escaped the clutches of Dutch authorities with their daughter, seeking refuge in Poland. Last week, they arrived and promptly applied for asylum in this country.

When officials from Dutch social services identified Nicole's purportedly transferred Münchausen syndrome (MSBP), the Schijf family's existence took a turn for the worse. While this personality disorder is relatively rare in the medical realm, it's more prevalent in the Netherlands and Germany. In these countries, the diagnosis holds significant weight, leading to the legal separation of children from their parents.

The challenges for Mr. and Mrs. Schijf originated with their 16-month-old daughter Olivia's struggle with constipation. The parents promptly addressed this seemingly innocuous yet troublesome ailment. Two separate doctors, located in different cities, independently diagnosed the issue and prescribed a course of treatment. However, when the primary treating gastrologist went on leave, a substitute, a medical professional rotating through various fields, took charge. This replacement doctor questioned the ongoing treatment, instructing it to stop. As Olivia's condition deteriorated, Nicole chose to partially revert to the specialist's initial recommendations. This decision reportedly irked the doctor, leading to the termination of their collaboration and the doctor reporting Nicole's behavior to social services as 'suspicious.'

From that point onward, the family's life unfolded in accordance with the prescribed protocol, further complicating their circumstances.

Legal professionals caution: your prospects appear bleak.

Veilig Thuis (VT), the Dutch agency overseeing child abuse cases, dispatched representatives to Nicole and Jasper's residence. Initially, they politely suggested a reexamination of the girl in an Amsterdam hospital. However, within a few days, this suggestion transformed into an unequivocal directive.

As per the family's narrative, the shift in tone was ostensibly triggered by an examination of the child's mother's medical history. The VT representatives were reportedly aghast at the extensive list of tests and doctor visits recorded. By this point, the initial suspicion of the transferred Münchausen syndrome (MSBP) had solidified into a definitive diagnosis. MSBP is a personality disorder characterised by actions such as intentionally harming one's own child, falsely convincing them of illness, all for the sake of garnering attention.

Despite the child's grandmother explaining that Nicole's mother undergoes periodic testing due to a hereditary lung disease in the family, and Nicole's own involvement in extreme sports, including ultramarathons necessitating regular specialist visits, officials remained unconvinced. From their perspective, it was a clear-cut case: a personality disorder not only afflicting the child's mother but also extending to her grandmother, whom doctors believed led Nicole to medical professionals too frequently. Consequently, Nicole was viewed as perpetuating similar patterns to the detriment of her child.

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Adhering to the directives, Nicole complied by bringing her daughter to the hospital in Amsterdam. However, their interactions were restricted, allowing only limited supervised visits that took a toll on the child's emotional well-being. Undeterred by the consequences, Nicole, against recommendations, left the hospital at her own behest. Despite ongoing communication with social services, the couple proposed installing cameras in their home and agreeing to nurses' checks at any time, all while insisting on remaining with their daughter.

In response, they were sternly instructed to return immediately to the Amsterdam hospital, with negotiations contingent upon compliance. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, the couple sought legal counsel from multiple lawyers, only to be met with disheartening consensus: "you have no chance."

  Faced with this grim reality, the couple opted to leave the country, setting their sights on the United Kingdom. However, they soon realised that their Dutch ordeal might be replicated. A hasty internet search led them to stories of Dutch individuals finding refuge in Poland, prompting them to head east.

Simultaneously, the Dutch justice system issued a European arrest warrant for the couple, and the child's status was registered internationally as a kidnapped child.

Reflecting on their pre-crisis life, Daniel, Nicole's brother, lamented, "Our entire existence revolved around Olivia. She is my sister's first daughter and my mother's first granddaughter. We possess numerous pictures and videos of her on our phones. This disbelief lingered for a long time, and to this day, we find it challenging to accept," expressed Daniel in an interview with TVP Weekly.

MSBP is easily "infected"

This family's ordeal is not an anomaly, as Transmitted Münchausen syndrome is diagnosed at a notably higher rate in the Netherlands and Germany compared to other regions. In Poland, with a population nearing 40 million, a handful of cases are identified annually. In contrast, Dutch journalists report approximately 100 cases diagnosed in the Netherlands in 2016, despite its population being over 17 million.

Curiously, psychiatrists highlight that understanding this disorder remains in the research stage, with diagnoses primarily focusing on severe manifestations leading to hospitalization or even fatalities. Professors Dominika Berent, Antoni Florkowski, and Piotr Galecki define Münchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP) as a psychiatric disorder, representing a potentially life-threatening form of maltreatment. This disorder occurs when a person with MSBP is responsible for the care of a child or another individual. The pathology is characterised by a distorted emotional relationship, typically between the MSBP-afflicted biological mother and the child victim.

In this scenario, the seemingly caring and affectionate mother harbours an internal rejection of the child, driven by a compulsive need to be perceived by others as a person in distress. The interest and sympathy garnered from others, especially in response to the apparent suffering of the child, serve as a psychological reward for the mother. The mother actively induces symptoms in the victim through actions such as administering poison, inducing starvation, causing infections, suffocating to the point of unconsciousness, or, in milder forms of MSBP, fabricating imaginary symptoms or abnormal test results when interacting with medical professionals. Consequently, suspicions of someone harbouring a similar disorder can lead to irreversible and profound consequences.
The Schijf family's troubles began with little Olivia's constipation, followed by her mother Nicole's diagnosed MSBP syndrome. Photo: family archive
The origins of the disease trace back to English pediatrician Roy Meadow, who, in 1977, first described and coined the term Münchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP). However, it was in England that approximately 260 previously diagnosed cases of the syndrome underwent re-examination, revealing that Meadow's assumptions were flawed. Based on his rulings, innocent mothers faced the heartbreaking consequences of having their children taken away, leading to imprisonment with sometimes lengthy sentences. Despite subsequent acquittals, the damage to their relationships with their children was often irreparable.

A decade ago, German sociologist Dr. Bernadette Jonda delved into the distressing narratives of children and mothers branded with severe personality disorders in her work, 'The limits of institutional intervention in the face of Munchausen syndrome foster syndrome in Germany - a case presentation.' She acknowledged that in Germany, being diagnosed with MSBP was one of the most effective methods for removing a child from a family. She cited an instance where an anonymous phone call to a clinic where a mother and her sick child were present was sufficient to draw attention to MSBP. The diagnosis was "confirmed" by a doctor from another clinic who had never seen the mother or child, yet his written statement held the weight of an expert opinion in a court hearing.

Subsequent cases detailed by the sociologist shared a common mechanism: a sick child, an uncertain or nonexistent diagnosis, a distressed mother fearing for the child's life, and the hope that the attending doctor could save the child. However, abruptly, the mother would be informed, often by a fast-track court order, that she was immediately barred from further contact with her child, regardless of whether she was still breastfeeding.

This syndrome can be "diagnosed" in mothers of both infants and older children. Nearly two decades ago, a case unfolded in Germany involving 9-year-old Aeneas, who was unexpectedly taken from his home. His mother was institutionalised with an MSBP diagnosis, accused of simulating her own illness while subjecting the child to unnecessary medical treatment. The mother maintained that she had contracted Lyme disease with numerous complications after a tick bite, but her pleas and official medical records were disregarded by authorities.

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Her son had contracted the same disease while still in his mother's womb, resulting in a multitude of illnesses that posed formidable challenges for easy resolution. Despite the complexities of his medical condition, a teacher at the school held a divergent view, deeming the boy a malingerer. As his mother advocated for increased attention to his needs, the school authorities took a concerning turn of action by notifying the Jugendamt (youth welfare office), an entity seemingly predetermined in its course of action. Regrettably, this stance persisted even after the woman was exonerated of all charges.

Persisting in their position, the Jugendamt only granted the woman limited communication with her son, permitting contact solely through written letters, and even then, restricting it to once a month. Heartbreakingly, Aeneas never returned home, and his mother, grappling with the very illness the office believed she was feigning, eventually succumbed.

The beaurocratic syndrome

Parents who bring attention to similar cases in the media find themselves in a paradox. While they garner support from viewers and readers, exerting pressure on social welfare offices, they inadvertently reinforce the diagnosis. Their actions can be interpreted as a manifestation of the desire for attention – a key symptom of the syndrome.

Dr. Jonda sheds light on the rationale behind organisations like the Jugendamt and those who endorse their practises. Parents striving to reunite with their children are often met with the assertion that they shouldn't be overly concerned about where their children reside, emphasising instead that their health is paramount.

It's crucial to recognise that the claim suggesting all such organisations employ questionable practises and that all doctors are uninformed, is inaccurate. Entities like the German Jugendamt, the Norwegian Barnevernet, or the Dutch Veilig Thuis face criticism, particularly when cases of genuine child abuse come to light. This is a concern echoed in Poland as well. The tragic case of 8-year-old Kamilek from Częstochowa, who was fatally beaten by his stepfather, raises questions about the promptness of Polish services in preventing such tragedies.

Regrettably, reports of power abuse by Western social organisations in 'tracking down' guilt against children have been persistent for years. Overzealous officials driven more by routine and laziness than an unwavering commitment to child welfare have become increasingly prevalent. Removing a child, often perceived as the easiest solution, becomes justifiable for any reason, and procedures allowing medical records to be selectively interpreted or ignored, along with court judgements, ensure unchecked impunity. The prevailing sentiment often appears to be, "Why worry about where your child is, as long as it is healthy?"

Behind every child, there's a financial aspect. According to Wojciech Pomorski, founder of the Polish Association of Parents Against Child Discrimination in Germany, the Jugendamt received an average of 6,000-10,000 euros per month for the care of one child a decade ago.

Despite the challenges faced by refugees from the Netherlands, they find solace in Poland, where heartless regulations are not prioritised over people. However, the looming question remains – will the situation be the same in the 'United States of Europe' when adopting customs from other EU countries, encompassing both commendable and alarming practises, such as the often misattributed transferred Münchausen syndrome to these institutions?

– Sławomir Cedzyński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Translated by Roberto Galea
The author is a journalist at
Main photo: The start of the 2023-24 school year at Maasdam primary school in the Netherlands, 21 August 2023. Photo by JEFFREY GROENEWEG/EPA/PAP
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