Pennsylvania Munchausen-by-proxy suit emerges in wake of Johns Hopkins 'Netflix' case

Twelve families have filed a joint lawsuit against Allentown, Pa.-based Lehigh Valley Health Network, alleging the health system and its affiliates falsely accused them of medical child abuse. 

The lawsuit, filed in Philadelphia County Court on Feb. 13, lists 17 claims including negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress; interference with parental rights; false report of child abuse; defamation; invasion of privacy; and assault and battery, Lehigh Valley News reported Feb. 16. It also claims false imprisonment, as children were held at the hospital after their caretakers were suspected of medical child abuse, and false arrest, as some parents served jail time as a result of the allegations. 

Some families allege that their children were subject to sexual abuse examinations at the health system, even when there was no evidence of abuse, hence the assault and battery charges.

The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, also based in Philadelphia, are named as defendants for alleged involvement in some cases.

Debra Esernio-Jenssen, MD, is also named as a defendant, along with LVHN's John Van Brakle Child Advocacy Center, which she used to head. Parents told ABC6 that Dr. Esernio-Jenssen diagnosed them with Munchausen syndrome by proxy — a condition by which a caretaker fabricates symptoms to make a child appear sick, or causes them to become sick — without ever interviewing them. 

In August, Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley released a report detailing concerns about a high concentration of Munchausen syndrome by proxy diagnoses. One-third of all Munchausen by proxy cases in the state during a five-year period ending in 2021 were in Lehigh Valley, according to the report. 

Mr. Pinsley called Dr. Esernio-Jenssen "overzealous in her diagnosis of medical child abuse," and called for a third-party investigation, according to ABC6. One week later, the health system named a new director to the Child Advocacy Center. Dr. Esernio-Jenssen is still listed as a rotation leader in LVHN's child protection department. 

Several other lawsuits have been filed with similar claims against Dr. Esernio-Jenssen and LVHN, according to the local news networks. The plaintiffs say their children were diagnosed with rare medical conditions; one mother says her son was diagnosed with "mitochondrial disorder" around the age of 3.

Francis Alexander Malofiy, the attorney representing the families — famous for suing Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement on "Stairway to Heaven" — said that when caretakers fought to regain custody of their children, their children were returned and the cases were closed. The courts did not adjudicate and offer a ruling. 

"There's no, 'I'm sorry.' It's just 'alright. We'll let you go. Bye,'" Mr. Malofiy told ABC6. "What are they doing? They're never going to court and making their claim. They're never sitting through cross-examination, they actually bail out with their tail between their legs."

A spokesperson for LVHN told Becker's the system cannot comment on specific details of active litigation, but shared the following statement on Feb. 20: "At Lehigh Valley Health Network, we are guided by our mission to heal, comfort, and care for the people of our community. As health care professionals, we bear the responsibility of keeping children safe and healthy, which includes reviewing and reporting suspicions of child abuse and neglect. Like all healthcare providers and caregivers in Pennsylvania, we are required by law to report suspected child abuse and we take this responsibility seriously. Early recognition of abuse can be lifesaving and our clinicians remain committed to caring for and protecting our patients."

The case bears similarities to a recent lawsuit against Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., popularized by the Netflix documentary "Take Care of Maya." When Maya Kowalski was 10, her family took her to the hospital for chronic pain caused by a diagnosis of complex regional pain syndrome, or CRPS. 

Beata Kowalski, Maya's mother, was suspected of Munchausen syndrome by proxy after demanding ketamine treatment for her daughter. Maya was held at the hospital under state custody from October 2016 to January 2017, at which point Beata took her own life. Maya was released to her family later that month.

The Kowalski family prevailed in the highly publicized lawsuit, which went to trial in September. Johns Hopkins has been ordered to pay $213.5 million after the jury found that the hospital falsely imprisoned and battered Maya, and caused emotional distress to the Kowalski family. 

In November, Maya filed a criminal complaint against the hospital, alleging sexual abuse. Greg Anderson, her attorney, told the media that "physician or a person appearing to be a physician" entered her hospital room in October 2016 and sexually abused her.

K. Alicia Schulhof, the hospital's president, recently spoke out in defense of the providers named in the case. 

"What I want you to know is how proud I am — and, I hope, how proud you all can be — for having providers that stand up for the most vulnerable kids," Ms. Schulhof said. "They have a duty and a responsibility, and, frankly, their license is on the line if they don't report suspected child abuse and neglect."

In the LVHN lawsuit, a case management conference is scheduled for Feb. 22.

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