Parents sue doctor who accused them of faking son's illnesses

CLEVELAND - The parents of 3-year-old boy have sued a prominent pediatrician at the Cleveland Clinic who accused the couple of faking their son's illnesses.

Scott and Tricia Beam of suburban Chippewa Lake were outraged when their son, Tyler, was placed with a foster family while the couple was under investigation by the Medina County Department of Job and Family Services.

The agency based its investigation on a 19-page letter from Dr. Johanna Goldfarb, who had never examined Tyler or met his parents but diagnosed the toddler as a victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a psychological disorder in which parents fake a child's illness or deliberately harm the child to draw attention to themselves.

A juvenile court eventually ruled in favor of the Beams, returning Tyler to their care.

But the couple filed a lawsuit in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court seeking damages. They say Goldfarb and the Cleveland Clinic should pay for the parents' mental anguish, embarrassment and damage to their reputations. Both are teachers in the Cleveland school system.

Defense lawyers labeled the lawsuit frivolous. But last month a judge denied their request to dismiss the case.

In court papers, the clinic maintains that it acted in the best interest of Tyler, who hadn't grown properly as an infant and later was diagnosed with a gastroesophageal disease and a gastric disorder. Doctors at the clinic implanted a feeding tube, and a specialist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia prescribed growth hormone treatments.

Goldfarb, who chairs the clinic's Child Protection Team on Munchausen, reviewed Tyler's case and wrote in 2004 that the boy was "in danger of death or permanent harm." She said Tyler was a victim of "improper and neglectful feeding" and suffered from anemia.

Five other departments at the clinic evaluated Tyler's medical records and signed off on Goldfarb's letter.

Stephen Brown, an attorney for the Beams, said doctors ignored evidence that Tyler was thriving and doing well. He said Tyler is now a "real happy, robust 3-year-old kid."

In a statement, the clinic reiterated that the personnel who evaluated and treated Tyler acted in his best interest, but declined further comment, citing patient confidentiality.

Defense lawyers have argued that Goldfarb was compelled by Ohio law to report her suspicions about Munchausen and that she is immune from liability, regardless of how unreasonable the Beams considered her report.

The clinic also cites medical literature in its defense, including studies that doctors are reluctant to report suspicions of child abuse for fear of litigation.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.