April 7, 2011 -- Police say they have arrested a 21-year-old Arizona mother for child abuse after her infant daughter was diagnosed with nine different rare infections. Doctors treating the child suspected the mother, Blanca Montano, of having something called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, which caused her to poison her child intentionally to get attention, police said.
Montano took her two children to an Arizona hospital in late February with flu-like symptoms. The children were diagnosed and treated for an infection. Montano's son was soon released, but her infant daughter got sicker and sicker. She was eventually diagnosed with nine separate rare infections over the course of her hospital stay, according to a statement from the Tucson Police Department.
Staff at the University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz., noticed the child's condition worsened every time she was alone with her mother. They began to suspect Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy and reported their suspicions to the police.
After launching an investigation, the Tucson Police Department learned that Montano intentionally poisoned her child and caused her illness. Once Montano was barred from visiting, said police, the baby's condition improved significantly.
Police arrested Montano on Tuesday, charging her with one count of child abuse.
Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy is often incorrectly referred to as a psychiatric disorder, said Dr. Marc Feldman, a psychiatrist at the University of Alabama who wrote "Playing Sick? Untangling the Web of Munchausen Syndrome, Munchausen by Proxy, Malingering, and Factitious Disorder."
"It is not a mental illness," Feldman said. "It is a form of abuse, just like sexual abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse – it's just a variant."
Montano's family is trying to raise money to get her out of jail; her sister Yamara said her bond is $50,000.
Her father, Rene, said he believes she's innocent, and told ABC News she would never hurt her child. Sister Yamara said she wants her sister to get help.
"I just want my sister to have help, not to go to jail," Yamara told ABC News. "We had struggled with this before."
Yamara said her mother, Rosa, was also accused of child abuse, and the kids were removed from the home. But after investigations, Yamara said, her mother was found innocent and the children were allowed to return.
Why Poison One's Own Child?
Feldman said Montano's case sounds like a typical Munchausen by Proxy case, in which a mother fakes or causes a disease in her child and then seeks out repeated medical attention for the child. The reasons for harming one's own child are manifold. He also noted that Munchausen mothers often have a history of abuse.
In the few cases in which mothers have acknowledged that they are perpetrators, said Feldman, they said they wanted attention, sympathy, care and concern. The Munchausen mothers felt they were unable to get the attention they needed any other way.
"They felt anonymous in their daily lives and unappreciated as mothers," said Feldman.
After sickening their children, these women shift identities from that of invisible mother to admirable, indefatigable caregiver of a sick child whose illness eludes diagnosis.
Mothers have also been falsely accused of Munchausen by Proxy, sometimes to devastating effect. In Tennessee, Julie Patrick founded Mothers Against Munchausen Allegations, or M.A.M.A, following the death of her infant son, Philip. Officials at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville suspected Patrick of being a Munchausen mother in 1996. One month after child services separated her from Philip, he died from causes related to numerous birth defects, including gastrointestinal problems. Patrick started the M.A.M.A web site six months after her son's death to reach out to others falsely accused of Munchausen by Proxy.
Munchausen Mothers Feel Unappreciated
"It was a way of finding others and to know that you're not alone," Patrick told ABC News in 2004. "There's a feeling of being totally alone when you face this accusation."
Groups like Patrick's Mothers Against Munchausen Allegations say doctors make such accusations when they cannot find the cause of a chronic illness or when they are tired of interacting with what they believe is a troublesome parent.
Dr. Eric Mart, a psychiatrist and author of "Munchausen by Proxy Reconsidered," said some doctors are overzealous in their accusations of Munchausen by Proxy, either because they are troubled by annoying parents or because they are experts in the disorder and have a bias towards identifying it.
"There's an old saying in medicine: You find what you look for and you look for what you know," said Mart.
False accusations do occur, but according to Feldman's research, they are rare. Reviewing 350 documented cases of Munchausen by Proxy, Feldman found just seven where mothers had been falsely accused. Medical records of children of Munchausen mothers often show years of medical tests, as if doctors are doing everything they can to avoid accusing mothers. Doctors do not like to think ill of patient's families, and of mothers in particular, Feldman said.
"It's counterintuitive that any mother would do this to her child."
ABC News' Sabina Ghebremedhin contribute to this report