J'lem Mother of Five Held for Allegedly Starving Her Child

Police arrested a 30-year-old Jerusalem woman a week ago for allegedly starving her 3-year-old son over the course of two years, it was announced yesterday.

The child, who weighs about seven kilograms, is hospitalized in serious condition.

The woman's arrest sparked protests in Jerusalem's Haredi neighborhoods yesterday. Hundreds of protesters blocked traffic and threw burning tires onto the road in Mea Shearim. Posters denounced the arrest, and two welfare bureaus were broken into and vandalized.

Police suspect the woman suffers from Munchausen syndrome by proxy - a psychiatric disorder that drives a person to deliberately harm someone else, usually to gain attention from doctors and family members.

The woman, her eyes cast downward in a prayer book, refused to answer reporters' questions during her court hearing yesterday. The woman, who is ultra-Orthodox and belongs to one of the most extreme sects in Jerusalem, has five children and is five months pregnant.

The Magistrate's Court lifted the gag order on the case yesterday, and extended the woman's remand by five days.

For the past two years doctors could not understand why the child, who was frequently brought to the hospital, was suffering from malnutrition.

Doctors became suspicious during the child's most recent hospitalization, in February, when his feeding tube kept being disconnected. Doctors began feeding him at night, when his mother was not there, and the child's condition began to improve. Police then installed hidden video cameras in his room, and allegedly caught the mother removing the child's feeding tube.

At that point, about a month ago, an emergency order was issued to remove the child from his parents' custody.

The child has been hospitalized at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem since February.

During the prior seven hospitalizations - starting in September 2007, when he was 19 months old - no one suspected the mother of abuse, so the welfare authorities were not involved.

When the child was hospitalized for the first time, he was running a high fever and vomiting. His parents said he refused to eat or drink. He was released two days later.

The mother's representative, David Halevy, told the court she denied the allegations and insisted the child was ill.

Police said yesterday that the child's improvement in the past month underscores their suspicions of abuse.

Hadassah's deputy director, Dr. Yair Birnbaum, said doctors suspecting this might be a case of neglect after all medical causes had been ruled out.

The court was shown photographs of the hospitalized child, looking weak with a swollen stomach.

Investigators are now checking whether the woman's other children have been abused.

The mother's attorney, Reuven Bar-Haim, told the court the welfare authorities had opposed the police decision to arrest his client, and that at a previous hearing it was decided she could visit the child under supervision.

The investigation has been impeded by family members' refusal to answer questions, and witnesses have reportedly been threatened by the woman's relatives. Police say the media reports will deter other witnesses from coming forward.