Sick Kid, Or Sick Mom?

IN THE END, THE POLICE DID more to cure Jennifer Bush than all her doctors combined. The Florida 9-year-old had been hospitalized 200 times and undergone 40 operations. Physicians removed her gallbladder, her appendix and part of her intestines, and inserted tubes into her chest, stomach and intestines. She was befriended by the Florida Marlins and served as a poster child for health reform, posing with Hillary Rodham Clinton at a White House rally. Then, a year ago, police notified her mother, Kathy Bush, that she was under investigation for child abuse. Suddenly, Jennifer's condition improved dramatically. In the next nine months, she was hospitalized only once, for a viral infection.

Last week police arrested Kathy Bush on charges of aggravated child abuse, alleging that she caused Jennifer's mysterious maladies. Bush vehemently denied the charges, but prosecutors called it a classic case of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, a rare disorder in which a parent deliberately makes a child ill to gain attention. Police charged her with fraudulently soliciting money, too. She repeatedly told interviewers the family was broke, and wrote to the White House, saying: "Do you know what it's like having to choose between purchasing groceries... or medications?" All the while, police said, the family was going to vacation resorts, buying a new Mustang and a motorcycle. (Jennifer's father was not charged.)

Child-welfare workers had suspected Bush as far back as 1991. They reopened the investigation last year after an anonymous tip. Police interviewed 14 doctors and 23 nurses who had cared for Jennifer, and were appalled by what they heard. According to the police affidavits, hospital workers said her condition usually got worse after her mother visited. One nurse said she saw Bush close the s around Jennifer's bed and heard the girl cry, "No, no, no." Then she saw Bush squirt something into her daughter's mouth with a syringe. Experts said Jennifer's numerous baffling infections were "consistent with someone smearing fecal matter" into her feeding line and urinary catheter. The poignant letters Jennifer supposedly wrote the Clintons raised suspicions, too. Nurses told police the girl had missed so much school that she could barely read or write. One nurse said she saw Bush writing on a pad in "large, childlike handwriting." She quickly covered it when the nurse came in.

Parents with Munchausen syndrome are often medically savvy. Bush had worked as a pediatrician's office manager until she was fired for allegedly stealing office cash. She also championed a proposed state law that would make it tougher for child-welfare workers to protect kids in suspected abuse cases.

Released on $25,000 bond, Bush told NEWSWEEK, "There is a tremendous side to this that you have not seen." Her lawyer advised her not to discuss details, but, she said, "there is so much I would love to scream out to you." Jennifer was placed in a foster home. Given the chance, she might have much to scream about too.