Warning: This article contains extremely graphic details that some readers may find very disturbing.
Recently media such as the 2020 film Run and the 2017 HBO documentary film Mommy Dead and Dearest has brought one of the more twisted psychological afflictions out there into the public eye: Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
If you’ve seen either of the aforementioned movies, then you already understand basically how it works. It typically involves (but is not limited to) a mother who intentionally harms one of her children, hoping to increase that child’s dependency on her.
This condition can also arise in caregivers for the elderly. However, the vast majority occur in mother-child relationships. While it may seem unthinkable that a mother would ever do something to intentionally harm their child, this phenomenon is far from just a silver screen dramatization.
Of all the documented cases of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, few are quite as outlandish and horrifying as the case of Hope Ybarra. Ybarra was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for serious bodily harm to a child.
The exact details of Ybarra’s abusive relationship with her child are difficult to discern, mostly because Ybarra’s behavior throughout the investigation showed a long history of pathological lying. Her story is unclear, hard to believe, and incredibly disturbing. However, looking at the case of Hope Ybarra gives us insight into the nature of Munchausen syndrome by proxy and the underlying psychological issues that cause it.
What Is Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy?
Munchausen syndrome is when someone tries to get attention or sympathy by falsifying, self-inducing, or exaggerating an illness. Munchausen syndrome by proxy is when a caregiver tries to gain attention or sympathy by falsifying, inducing, or exaggerating an illness in one who they care for.
The caregiver will directly produce or lie about an illness in the one that they care for, usually either to create a dependency in that person or to gain sympathy from outside parties. As it is far more difficult to convince children that they’re sick once they get older, Munchausen syndrome by proxy typically victimizes children under the age of six.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy typically stems from deep emotional illness, often an inner need of the caregiver to be relied upon by their child. While certain cases of Munchausen syndrome have been aimed at monetary gain, Munchausen syndrome by proxy more often about fulfilling a psychological need than a financial one.
The Case of Hope Ybarra
Hope Ybarra’s story is probably one of the most horrifying known cases of Munchausen syndrome by proxy in history. Over the course of four years, she subjected her second daughter, who was born prematurely, to medical procedures and surgeries from which the child almost died. This awful cycle of abuse culminated when her daughter went into anaphylactic shock after receiving an infusion and almost died.
While Ybarra’s abuse of her second daughter was the most detrimental of her transgressions and the one that led to her arrest, this abuse was steeped in a long history of pathological lying that began years before her second daughter was even born.
Upon the birth of her first daughter, Ybarra claimed that her daughter had been born with cerebral palsy and had placed ankle braces on her for the first year of her life. However, when her second daughter was born prematurely, she saw a better opportunity to gain sympathy and shifted her focus to that daughter. Her first daughter was “miraculously” cured of cerebral palsy, an incurable disease.
In 1998, right after she married her husband, she told him that she was going to school for her Ph.D. For one full year, she would leave her home on Tuesday and Thursday nights, claiming that she was attending classes.
After the year was over, she proclaimed to her husband that she had finished her Ph.D. program and began printing “Ph.D.” all over her business cards and in her email signature. Her husband thought it strange that she could finish her Ph.D. program in one year part-time, but said that he was proud of her nonetheless. When the investigation began that led up to her conviction in 2009, it was discovered that Ybarra had never obtained a Ph.D.
In 2001, Ybarra claimed that she had been diagnosed with bone cancer. For the next eight years, her cancer facade grew more and more complex. She claimed that the cancer had spread to her brain and lungs. She shaved her head and claimed that it was the result of ongoing chemotherapy. She learned sign language and got a cochlear implant, which she claimed was necessary as a result of the cancer’s destructive effects on her hearing. She even moved to Alabama for eight months to get treatment she claimed she couldn’t get anywhere else.
While she was reportedly still receiving chemotherapy, she told her family that she had become pregnant with twins. She wore maternity clothes, named the twins, and arranged for a baby shower.
Five months into her pregnancy, she informed her family that she had a miscarriage as a result of the chemotherapy treatments. Ybarra took a large sum of money out of their bank account and held a funeral. She claimed that she had the twins cremated, got a commemorative tattoo for them on her back, bought a commemorative angel statue that they kept in the backyard, and put two sealed urns on their mantle, which were purported to be full of their ashes. These urns were later discovered to be completely empty.
Abuse and Arrest
Hope Ybarra’s abusive relationship with her second daughter appeared to begin when she brought her daughter to the hospital and claimed that her daughter had a swallowing dysfunction, which prompted the doctors to surgically install a gastronomy feeding tube. Using this feeding tube, she was able to trick doctors into thinking that her daughter was suffering from terminal cystic fibrosis by feeding her daughter dangerous amounts of salt. As the test for cystic fibrosis involves testing the sweat for unusually high sodium contents, Ybarra routinely force-fed her daughter salt in hopes of achieving a false-positive result.
Since cystic fibrosis patients need to take many medications, Ybarra’s daughter had an intravenous central line, an access point straight to her heart, surgically inserted. It is believed that Ybarra was using this access point to continually remove blood from her daughter’s body, hoping that it would make her daughter look anemic.
Doctors claimed that Hope’s daughter would arrive at the hospital very anemic and then be fine by the time she left, which was one of the first tips that there was foul play involved. Hope’s daughter nearly died when she received an iron dextran infusion for the anemia she didn’t have.
Seemingly qualified for the job with her forged Ph.D., Hope Ybarra worked as a lab director at a pharmaceutical company, which granted her access to some very dangerous pathogens. During the investigation into Hope Ybarra, her employers claimed that she had been suspected of poisoning two of her coworkers.
As the investigation continued, it was discovered that Hope Ybarra had ordered several pathogens that were not used at the lab, one of which was Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacteria known to cause pneumonia in cystic fibrosis patients. Indeed, several of these pathogens were found in Hope’s daughter’s blood, implying that Hope was attempting to cause pulmonary infections in her own daughter.
Hope Ybarra accepted a plea bargain in 2009 and was sentenced to 10 years at the Gatesville Texas prison in 2009. Years later, when she was interviewed by the Star-Telegram, her pattern of pathological lying continued. She introduced herself with a yellow card that identified her as a hearing-impaired inmate and began the interview with a speech impediment and used sign language throughout her conversation. Not long into the interview, however, her speech impediment was completely gone and her hearing appeared to be fine.
Hope Ybarra’s distorted view of reality is a tragedy in and of itself. She is a pathological liar with a deep-seated inability to deal with reality that causes her to fabricate lies and try to play the victim. What is even more tragic, though, is that, in her case, her lies and self-victimization almost killed her own daughter.