In one photo the little boy is seen smiling, seemingly oblivious to the plastic tube running into his nose. A picture of him on a family outing shows him grinning while sitting in a wheelchair and in another shot he can be seen wearing a surgical mask.
It’s impossible to look at the pictures of Christopher Bowen and not be moved – which is exactly what his mother, Kaylene Bowen-Wright, wanted. On crowdfunding pages set up to raise money for his medical care she shared heartrending details of Christopher (then about six years old) struggling with terminal cancer.
It was difficult knowing she’d have to watch him die, but the scores of messages of support she received from strangers gave her strength, making it easier for her to shoulder the burden, she said.
But while the sympathy and money rolled in there was one person who was aware it was all a big fat lie. The boy’s dad, Ryan Crawford, had long known Christopher was perfectly healthy – and that Kaylene was actually the one with the problem.
Authorities now suspect the mother from Texas in the USA shows traits of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a psychological condition where a caregiver makes up medical problems in a child as a way of gaining attention. But while Ryan spent five years fruitlessly trying to get child welfare officials to take his claims seriously, Kaylene was able to continue putting her perfectly healthy son through needless suffering.
By the time she was finally arrested in 2017 and charged with medical child abuse she’d taken Christopher (now 10) for 323 visits to doctors in Dallas and Houston and put him through 13 major surgeries, all entirely unnecessary. Keen to win even more sympathy, she tried to make her child look even sicker by having a feeding tube inserted into his body.
The presence of the tube, which fed straight into his small intestine, triggered real problems, causing Christopher to develop life-threatening blood infections But this didn’t put Kaylene off.
Authorities revealed she’d applied for her son to be given a lung transplant and, after spreading the lie he had terminal cancer, she even insisted he be admitted to a hospice.
Athough Ryan was horrified about what she was putting their child through he was powerless to stop her – he’d spent years unsuccessfully trying to convince family court judges his son wasn’t sick.
In 2012 he was stripped of his visitation rights after a judge ruled he was a danger to his child because he refused to support Kaylene in her efforts to give Christopher proper medical care.
“It was always the same story: Christopher is dying. The father doesn’t need to be around because he doesn’t know how to take care of him,” Ryan said in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“Every time I went to court they made me feel like I was the worst human ever.”
But after Kaylene (35) recently pleaded guilty to recklessly causing injury to her child, a second-degree felony that could carry a 20-year jail sentence, it’s becoming painfully clear that authorities read the situation totally wrong.
Even before his son’s birth, alarm bells were starting to ring for Ryan. He recalls that Kaylene would sometimes phone him in the middle of the night from random hospitals, reporting she’d been admitted for various reasons. They’d been dating for only a little while and had already split up when Kaylene discovered she was pregnant. Although they were no longer together Ryan said he was determined to be involved in his son’s life.
By this point he was already suspicious about Kaylene’s constant medical dramas but he hoped that when their child arrived she’d settle down. But after Christopher was born prematurely at 33 weeks in 2009 things became worse.
“She was always saying Christopher was sick. Every single week,” Ryan said.
“She’d always say, ‘Something’s wrong. He has this. He has that’.”
Investigators now believe she might have started abusing her son when he was only 11 days old. Records show that hospital staff spotted her pouring out formula he hadn’t finished then later telling nurses he’d had the whole bottle.
It became an eight-year spiral of deception, with Kaylene providing exaggerated or false information as she took her son from one doctor to the next. It’s thought these lies led to Christopher undergoing scores of tests, a lifetime’s worth of radiation exposure from unnecessary X-rays, invasive surgeries and feeding tubes. It also took a toll on him psychologically by depriving him of the chance to take part in school and other normal activities.
Even though he wasn’t living under the same roof as his son, Ryan could see something was wrong. He said he raised the matter with child protective services three times between 2010 and 2012 but his concerns were ignored. Christopher remained with his mother along with an older half-sister and younger half-brother from two of Kaylene’s other relationships.
It was only in 2017, when a report was filed by a Dallas hospital voicing concerns that Kaylene was telling everyone Christopher had cancer and insisting he be placed in hospice care when tests clearly showed he didn’t have the disease that authorities finally took action. Kaylene was arrested and Christopher and his two half-siblings were removed from her care.
Although Ryan was relieved that he’d finally been vindicated, he still faced an uphill battle to be a father to his son. Welfare officials initially decided to put the boy in foster care, arguing he didn’t know his dad well enough to stay with him.
It took Ryan several months and a legal bill of around $7 000 (about R100 000) but eventually he was granted custody of his son. For the past two years Kaylene has been allowed weekly supervised visits with Christopher but after she’s sentenced in October her contact with her son will become less frequent.
Having lived with Ryan for more than a year, Christopher has changed markedly – he’s gained weight and is a lively, active kid. And now that he’s able to live a normal, healthy life he’s realising that what his mother did to him was wrong.
When Ryan broke the news to Christopher recently that Kaylene had pleaded guilty and will probably spend a long time in jail, he was shocked by his son’s response. After taking a few moments to process what his father was telling him, Christopher asked, “Does that mean she’s finally saying that she did hurt me?”
“I told him yes, and he pretty much said, ‘That’s a good thing’,” Ryan said.
WHAT IS MUNCHAUSEN BY PROXY?
It’s a mental disorder in which a caregiver makes up or causes an illness or injury to a person in their care. This behaviour could stem from poor self-esteem, a craving for attention or the desire to feel needed, experts say. The most famous example is the case of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, an American girl whose entire childhood was a litany of abuse as her mother, Dee Dee, falsely claimed she had leukaemia and muscular dystrophy and was intellectually disabled. The truth was uncovered only in 2015 when Gypsy (then 24) arranged for a boyfriend she’d met online to kill her mother. She’s now serving a 10-year sentence for murder.