SENSITIVITY STRAINING

YEAR AFTER YEAR, DEBBIE MCQUEEN MAKES NEWS BY FORCING THE GOVERNMENT TO DEAL WITH A CHEMICAL SENSITIVITY SYNDROME THAT SHE CLAIMS AFFLICTS HER CHILDREN. THERE IS REASON TO WONDER HOW SICK THOSE KIDS ACTUALLY ARE.

Although there are several schools in the Paradise Valley school district that control pests through nonchemical means, Debbie will not let her kids return to the district. She calls the nonchemical programs in district schools "pseudo programs."

What really concerns her is how teachers and administrators at Eagle Ridge "mentally and physically abused" her sons.

She gives examples of that abuse. The kids got sick after the school used the termiticide. Jason's teacher allowed a room deodorizer in the classroom in clear violation of his accommodation plan. Such scents, Debbie says, might be dangerous to Jason's health. The band teacher failed to give Jason an "effort" grade and isolated him from the rest of the kids, just because the accommodation plan kept him out of some sections of the band room. Michael's teacher prevented him from participating in a tee-shirt tie-dye project.

District officials will not comment on the McQueen case. But available public records, including some of the boys' medical records, point up troubling inconsistencies.

These inconsistencies surface at the very time mental-health professionals struggle to differentiate between two types of mothers who complain repeatedly about the treatment of their children.

The first type of mother is merely anxious, concerned that a child with special needs is being shortchanged by the educational system, says Herbert Schreier, an Oakland, California, child psychiatrist who studied such mothers. The anxious mother generally quiets down when her child's needs are met, he says.

The second type of mother uses her child as a tool to manipulate professionals and get attention for herself--at the expense of the child, says Schreier. The mother never seems satisfied, no matter what officials do to appease her. Mothers in this category may be suffering from a variation of a psychological syndrome known as Munchausen by Proxy, Schreier says. Like all forms of Munchausen by Proxy, this variation of the syndrome is actually a type of child abuse, Schreier says.

He would not comment on the McQueen case. And without performing an extensive psychiatric examination, it is all but impossible to prove, definitively, into which category Debbie McQueen might fit.

When Debbie McQueen talks about her childhood in Illinois, she paints a picture of isolation and loneliness. She was a skinny tomboy who spent a lot of time alone. She often felt "judged" by other kids because she lived in a "slum area of Springfield."

"I hated it," says Debbie.
She describes her father as a "refined Archie Bunker" and an "extreme right winger" with a bloodline that traces back to Martha Washington and Robert E. Lee.

By contrast, she says, her mother was a "sharecrop farmer's daughter" who lost many relatives in Auschwitz.

Her parents taught her to tell the truth, but, she asks, where has it gotten her? She tells the truth, only to be "chastised" and "scrutinized" and "covertly investigated."

Debbie refers to an eight-year-old investigation by the Arizona Attorney General's Office, in which she says she was singled out as a possible suspect. The investigation touched on reports that shots had been fired at a crop-dusting helicopter owned by the company that allegedly poisoned her and her boys in 1987.

Debbie says a lawyer charged her $5,000 to successfully have her name expunged from records as a suspect.

Debbie hadn't expected this when she came to Arizona 17 years ago with her dog. All she wanted to do then was escape a failed relationship and find a new life.

She met Doug McQueen in Flagstaff. She recalls him as an "earthy-type person," and he remembers her as "a lot of fun." The two married in 1979.

Back then, Debbie had dreams of going back to college. She didn't return. Now, she considers that decision one of the biggest mistakes she's made in her life.

Debbie worked as a court clerk and Doug sold electrical supplies in Flagstaff. Their stories differ on their decision to move to Phoenix. In an interview away from Debbie, Doug says he asked her to "send out my r‚sum‚s" to prospective Valley employers hand-picked by Doug.

Debbie takes credit for Doug's employment. She says she secretly sent out Doug's r‚sum‚s to Phoenix businesses, and "he didn't even know it."

In the winter of 1985, the McQueens moved to a home on west Tuckey Lane in Glendale. The tile and stucco house was adjacent to farmland. Helicopters periodically crop-dusted the nearby fields, says Debbie, but she didn't pay much attention. Her son Michael was born several weeks after the move, and she was "on the skirt tails of the American dream."

Then Debbie and her neighbors started noticing that there was a lot of illness in the area. It seemed as though "some plague" had descended on them. Children cried all the time, "and we couldn't console them."

A health history that Debbie wrote in 1987 for a reporter lists the family's maladies. Both boys had ear infections and diarrhea. They were irritable. Jason had "stuttering, personality change, hyperactive, body tics. Lasted two weeks." In one instance, she noted, Jason had "behavior change. Body tic. Lower torso bucking nonstop. Disappeared after a while."

"By December, Michael had lost two pounds," Debbie wrote. "Dr. McBride put him in Good Sam. His diarrhea improved with no treatment. He ate like a dog. Michael had chest congestion (never in life had a runny nose) apparent red ring around lips. Very lethargic. Michael had no diagnosis. Came home from hospital and began vomiting too. Vomiting, diarrhea continued. At this point a test sent to Tucson showed a virus. No fever. No one caught Michael's virus. No fevers either."
One specialist, Debbie says, ordered a psychological evaluation before he would give the baby, Michael, a barium enema to determine why he apparently suffered from relentless diarrhea. The psychologist determined that Debbie had a normal mother-son relationship with Michael. Michael's barium enema turned up no abnormalities.

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