Recently, there was an article in the national news titled: “What Could Lead to a Mother Catfishing Her Own Daughter?” Missing from this intriguing headline was the complex psychological framework surrounding the incident referenced, wherein a Michigan mother was charged for her role in a cyber version of Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP), known as Munchausen’s by Internet (MBI). The mother, Kendra Licari, pled guilty to stalking minors, using a computer to commit a crime, and obstruction of justice, following a month’s long campaign of the mother sending harassing text messages to her daughter and her boyfriend. Licari’s goal was to gain sympathy from school officials and other parents . Using “sock puppet” accounts on social media, Licari anonymously bullied her daughter, perpetuating harm against her daughter while simultaneously appearing to provide for her .
The Munchausen Syndrome (MS) paradigm is multilayered, involving multiple actors or interconnected plots to direct sympathy toward a central actor. The technical definition of “Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy” is Factitious Disorder, which is a DSM-5 diagnosis that rests on “intentional falsification of [medical symptoms] […] for no obvious gain or reward” . Individuals suffering from Munchausen’s will manufacture ailments to cause themselves illness, or the appearance of it, to garner sympathy for themselves. Those suffering from Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP), typically a parent or caretaker, will repeatedly “see[k] medical attention for their children, whose symptoms they have faked or induced” . In these situations, the parent’s goal is to receive acclaim for their caretaking abilities, from either medical personnel in charge of their child’s care or a wider audience of friends and family.
Munchausen’s by Internet (MBI) is the inevitable consequence of unfettered access to social media. There are two means through which MBI may manifest: one in which an individual seeks online affirmations by fabricating medical conditions or symptoms, and another in which the internet is used as a mechanism to gain attention, without the medical manifestations being a necessary component . In some MBI cases, a person may feign confirmation of their false story by posing as other family members or friends who perpetuate the false narrative. This may include using multiple accounts to increase viewership and support for their falsehoods or posting fabricated information on social media to trigger online commentary.
Instead of doctor shopping and fixating on a child’s purported medical issues, a parent with MBI seeks attention through online validation. In Licari’s case, she bullied her daughter to gain attention during her displays of concerned parenting. Having greater awareness of the variations in which Munchausen’s presents allows internet users, including those from more vulnerable populations, to identify when someone may be trying to mislead them. People who suffer from Munchausen’s may be unable to gauge the severity of their actions and the risk of potential harm to themselves or others, as many need treatment for this disorder. Yet, cases of MSBP or MBI where children are harmed by parental behaviors can result in criminal charges and DCS involvement. As practitioners, it is important that we remain vigilant in our awareness of these variations so that we can identify whether this is happening in our cases and take necessary action to stop further abuse.
 Sock puppet accounts are used solely for the purpose of deceiving other online users, as they are not connected to an identifiable individual.
Gregg Woodnick has been an attorney in Arizona for over 20 years. He is a former adjunct law professor and has lectured for Yale University, Midwestern College of Osteopathic Medicine, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University.
Mallory Scott is a law clerk at Woodnick Law and a 2L at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.