How Do You Traumatize a Child? Tell Him He Has Cancer when He Actually Doesn’t.

Crime
A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Sept. 16 2013 11:00 AM

How Do You Traumatize a Child? Tell Him He Has Cancer when He Actually Doesn’t.

falsecancer
Emily Creno

Screenshot courtesy 10tv.com

Earlier this year, I wrote about Victoria Ann Marut, a Missouri grad student accused of pretending to have cancer in order to get out of her schoolwork. Faking cancer isn’t a crime on its own, but forging a doctor’s note to support your sham diagnosis certainly is. Marut pleaded guilty to a charge of felony forgery, and we all learned a valuable lesson: not only does cancer fakery exist, but it’s relatively common. Plug “fake cancer” into a Google search, and you’ll end up with a list of stories about people who have lied about their diagnoses for various reasons: money, sympathy, mental illness. (Feigning sickness in order to attract attention is called “Munchausen syndrome.”)

But there’s a big difference between shaving your own head and claiming you have cancer and shaving your 4-year-old son’s head and claiming that he has cancer. That’s what an Ohio woman named Emily Creno—also known as Emily King, or Emily Creno-King—is accused of doing. According to the Newark Advocate, Creno allegedly fooled friends, relatives, and perfect strangers into thinking that her son, JJ, had terminal brain cancer. The boy and his mother were showered with attention and gifts by people across the country, many of whom encountered the story through a variety of sympathy-inducing Facebook groups allegedly set up by Creno. The scheme fell apart when one of those Facebookers grew suspicious—she asked Creno the name of her son’s oncologist, and, in response, Creno allegedly kicked her out of the Facebook group—and contacted a local television station, which produced an investigative report that you can view here.

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The worst part of the story? Creno allegedly fooled her son into thinking that he had cancer, too. According to nbc4i.com, Creno subjected the boy to several needless doctors’ visits, where he “underwent numerous procedures that were unnecessary and potentially dangerous. Additionally, she shaved his head and told him he was going to die.” Put yourself in this kid’s position, right about at the time when you learned that, ha ha, it was all a horrible trick. How long before your immediate joy at learning that you are not, in fact, going to die turns into confusion about why your mother lied to you? This poor kid will probably be traumatized for the rest of his life.

Creno was charged last week with felony child endangerment, which seems appropriate. She may well face theft charges, too. And yet I can’t help feeling that there’s a mitigating factor here, which is that these were clearly not the actions of a well woman. There’s a variation of Munchausen syndrome called “Munchausen syndrome by proxy,” in which parents claim their children are sick in order to garner sympathy for themselves; Creno is being evaluated so that doctors can determine if, in fact, this might account for her behavior. That wouldn’t excuse her actions, but it would certainly go a long way toward explaining them.

Crime is Slate’s crime blog. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @slatecrime.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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