Kristi Carroll started to lie about her son’s health when he was just a few months old. The Tarrant County mom took her son, born in 2016, to the hospital frequently and told doctors he could not keep food down. Carroll lied about and faked her son’s sickness from 2017 to 2018, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. Doctors, under the impression the child was seriously ill, inserted a gastric feeding tube. Carroll told doctors the boy was vomiting with the feeding tube, prompting the hospital to insert a central line to administer nutrition through the baby’s veins. Medical staff started to notice strange behavior by Carroll, according to the arrest warrant. She posted on Facebook that at one point, her son stopped breathing and had to be revived — but medical staff said that never happened. She got excited when staff told her that her child might need an intestinal transplant. In January 2018, Carroll told staff at Cook Children’s Medical Center her son had thrown up. Video surveillance revealed Carroll had spilled liquid on the child’s bed to create fake vomit.
Hospital staff reported Carroll for potential medical child abuse, and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services started to investigate in 2018. The child was removed from Carroll’s care within a month, and his central line was removed in February 2018. The disorder in which a caretaker lies about or causes a child’s illness to obtain unnecessary medical care goes by several names: Munchausen syndrome by proxy, factitious disorder imposed upon another, fabricated or induced illness by carers. The act itself is referred to as medical child abuse. One county catches more perpetrators of medical child abuse than any other, according to leading experts in the field. Tarrant County, according to experts, is an anomaly. In Tarrant County, multiple systems are able to recognize, report and investigate suspected cases of medical child abuse in a unique way.
But even here, suspected cases are difficult to prosecute. Evidence may show a child is being medically abused, but no laws exist to criminalize medical child abuse specifically. It is not illegal to lie to a doctor about your child’s health, even if those lies result in unnecessary surgery. Authorities have to prosecute a perpetrator for injury caused by a surgery or medical treatment, which experts say creates a convoluted case juries and judges may not understand. “I think Tarrant County … is doing the best job in the United States of exploring the possibility of Munchausen syndrome by proxy,” said Dr. Marc Feldman, who has been a leading expert in medical child abuse for decades. “But the jury is still out, literally, on how the court system is handling these cases.” Advocates want to change that with a groundbreaking Texas state law that would legally address medical child abuse with a specific criminal charge for the first time.
Carroll’s case is just one example of how the court system is wholly unprepared to protect children from medical child abuse or to prosecute perpetrators, experts say. While the Department of Family and Protective Services found evidence Carroll was harming her son, a family court judge granted her custody of the child. And despite warnings from Cook Children’s as early as January 2018, a criminal investigation did not start until 2019. Carroll was eventually arrested, but with a makeshift charge that allowed her to take a plea deal and retain custody of her son.