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Maternal care -- or harm?

A Redlands mother of four was accused of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, fabricating or inducing illnesses in her own children.

March 09, 2008|Tracy Weber | Times Staff Writer

It was lunchtime at Loma Linda Academy when the social workers arrived, escorted by a deputy sheriff.

They were there to collect the Udvardi children. Amid dozens of students munching sandwiches and chips, school officials found 6-year-old Esther, then Abram, 11, and Sam, 14. They got the eldest, Matthew, 16, just as he arrived at his American Lit class.

The children were hustled one by one to a white van in the parking lot, then whisked away even before their father, the school's band teacher, knew what was happening.

Seven miles away in Redlands, the phone rang at the family's modest tract home. Leslie Udvardi found a county social worker on the line.

The woman was blunt: Leslie had been deemed a danger to her children. They would be in the state's care until a court decided differently.

Leslie said the social worker accused her of subjecting the kids to unnecessary and often painful medical treatments. In fact, child welfare officials believed Leslie was the one who was sick, with a syndrome known by a long and forbidding name: Munchausen by proxy.

Leslie had read about it. It was a TV crime drama disease, a mental illness in which a caregiver, usually a mother, fabricates illnesses in a child to gain attention.

Certainly her children had been stricken by an unusual number of ailments, almost from birth, but Leslie told the woman she'd done everything in her power to help, not hurt, them.

The social worker kept talking: Leslie could drop off clothes and books for the children.

Leslie barely registered the details. All she could think was: They've taken my kids.

Leslie hung up and dialed her husband's cellphone.

She was "screaming in a panic," Kirk Udvardi remembered. He was being accused too, she told him, of failing to protect the children from her.

For four days, Kirk said, no one would tell either parent where their children were.

Kirk said a social worker did offer him some unsolicited advice: "You're going to really need to come out strongly against your wife. If you don't come out against your wife, there's a good chance you're not going to see your kids again."

Problems from the start

Though she'd given birth four times, Leslie never felt she'd had the chance to simply "enjoy a baby."

Her first, Matthew, was besieged by illness almost from the start: rashes, respiratory infections, eye problems and difficulties absorbing food, records show. So many complaints, Leslie recalled, that his pediatrician accused her of being a bad mother. She switched doctors.

Then came Sam. He, too, was dogged by ailments. A reflux problem meant she had to feed him formula until he was 4.

In 1994, Leslie was pregnant again. She was certain that God wouldn't give her another difficult child, she said. But Abram had to be fed through a tube in his nose. Later, he suffered seizures.

Playtime had to be juggled with doctors' appointments and tests. There were asthma episodes, allergic reactions and scary moments when the boys stopped breathing in their sleep. There were oxygen tanks, special diets and detailed instructions to playmates' parents.

Leslie, a small, intense woman with thick glasses and a nervous smile, wondered what was going on. Was there something in the couple's genes that was making their kids sick? She had medical problems herself: headaches, allergies. She'd battled attention deficit disorder since college. She was sure at least one of the boys had it too.

"I tried really hard not to panic," said Leslie, now 49. But she became "hyper-alert" to the smallest symptom, looking up each one on the Internet.

When a geneticist the couple consulted saw no pattern to the family's health problems, Leslie said she couldn't believe it. "I really felt in my gut that they had to be related somehow."

But there was little time for research. Kirk, now 43, was teaching music classes at two local colleges and the academy, a Seventh-day Adventist school, while squeezing private lessons in between.

Leslie, a former high school math teacher, had to cut back on tutoring students to manage the boys' care. Money was tight.

Then came a disconcerting surprise: Leslie was pregnant again. Part of her didn't want to risk having another unhealthy child. But this one turned out to be a girl -- finally, after so many boys.

They named her Esther. They hoped she would be healthier, but by the time she was a toddler she was plagued by sleep apnea, chronic viral infections and a seizure disorder, according to medical and court records.

In some ways, the Udvardis were just like their friends and neighbors: committed to their hobbies and routines, devoted to their faith. The parents, who had converted to Seventh-day Adventism shortly after moving west from Indiana, had close friends in the tight-knit church community that revolves around Loma Linda University. The family attended services whenever they could.

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