10pm on Friday April 10th 2020, I received a text message from an unknown sender.
“Hello, my name is Jess. I am a first time mum. I have just turned 39 weeks yesterday, I was booked for a home birth but now the team have pulled out so swapped to a birth centre but yesterday that has closed in order to give single rooms to covid 19 labouring mums to keep them isolated if they are showing any symptoms. I am now in early labour and have been told to stay at home for as long as possible. I’m a bit embarrassed to text or call you in case I am disturbing you or you already have a high volume. It was my mother in law who gave me your contact details. Jessica”
Anyone working as a doula would not be surprised to receive a text like this from an unknown contact. We often get approached in this way. No doula working in the current climate of Covid 19 would be surprised by the above scenario or by the timing of this request for help. Women who are pregnant are desperate for early labour support.
These issues are being commonly faced by women across the UK and women are reaching out for help in their hour of need from doulas who advertise “Emergency support for Early Labour”. Women are being forced to make a choice between birthing in hospital, (a place of birth they may consider to carry great risk for them and their families) or birthing at home without medical assistance. This is not what I would call choice. They are between a rock and a hard place and doulas like me are desperately trying to help them to navigate these treacherous waters.
This cry for help pulled at my heart strings. We talked briefly (via text) about cost and I quickly established that she was looking for unpaid support because she was unwaged. I agreed to this.
“Would you like to FaceTime, WhatsApp or Zoom?” I asked.
“Embarrassingly, I’m in the bath ATM” was her reply.
After brief exchanges via text message over the following hour or so, we both agreed that it would be good to try and rest for as long as possible. I went to bed, phone beside me and slept for 6 hours undisturbed.
We continued to exchange text messages and phone calls during the following day and her husband Jordan joined in, texting from a WhatsApp account. “How comes you are both able to use the same number?”, I asked. “The devices are synchronised”, I was told. I was told at around this point that Jordan had cystic fibrosis – a recent heart and lung transplant. I was told that going to hospital was not an option for either of them – the risks to her husband were too great. I made it clear that I would not stay online with her if she chose to birth without assistance but that I would stay with her if paramedics or midwives were there to assist. I sent her information about Freebirth, Unassisted Childbirth and Unassisted Pregnancy from the AIMS website. I urged her to try and negotiate home care from her local midwifery unit. She contacted me later in the day to say that they had agreed to support her at home if they could.
Jess was managing her labour well. Her husband Jordan was so proud of her. We were building rapport, building a team and I was quietly telling myself that I had the skills to do this, that I had sufficient experience to give her the emotional support needed to achieve the positive birth experience that she so desperately wanted. I told myself that my physical presence wasn’t essential – ‘virtual’ or ‘remote’ support was the new way of working and it worked. I had been sent photos of ‘show’, bloody discharge, a bump that appeared to be low, signs that labour had started for sure!
Another full nights sleep was had on Saturday night. “We need to pace ourselves” I thought to myself. “We’re in for the long haul here”. “No wonder”, I thought, “the impact of fear can slow labour right down”.
The following day she described what sounded like ‘back to back’ labour….intense pain, lots of cries for help via text messages and phone calls. Video connection seemed somehow too intrusive. She told me that her waters had gone, that she was wearing very little clothing, that she was shy, embarrassed to be seen “in such a state”. I spent many hours in contact with her, reassuring her, describing spinning babies moves to help her baby into position, waiting for signs of established labour so that midwives could be called.
I was told that midwives had arrived at approximately 2am. Baby was born at 4:10 am. To her constant plea “You won’t leave me will you?”. I had stayed on the phone continuously for 8.5 hours in total.
I heard the sound of a newborn cry. I was sent a photo of a newborn. I stayed on the line as Jordan described via text, events unfolding. Baby grunting, massive PPH, paramedics and trauma doctor called. Bloods being given at home to avoid hospital transfer if possible. Unable to stem blood flow, need for theatre, need for baby to be observed by paediatricians, no beds available for them both in the same hospital, carted off in separate ambulances to different hospitals. I went to bed and wept. I thanked the universe for providing her with medical support when needed.
Over the following 7 days my level of support intensified. I was told that the baby had a congenital heart disease. That they were trying to get a ‘safe’ team together to operate. I was told that he was weakening, that he had already had one cardiac arrest, that they were having an MDT to decide between surgery or palliative care. Eventually, I was told that the baby was being allowed home to die. “What medical support will you have?”, I asked. “The midwives who were with me when I birthed have been deemed the safest team because they have only worked in the community.” I was told “They are working shifts to give me 24 hr support at home”.
I was contacted on WhatsApp by a new unknown number. “Is this Verina?”. “Yes, How can I help you” I replied. I was told that the message was from the midwives to ensure “wrap around care”. I began to build a relationship with them via WhatsApp messenger. This was a different phone number with what looked like a young midwife as a profile picture. The phone number was assigned to **on call** when I checked the account holder name. One of the midwives seemed particularly friendly – she seemed prepared to stretch a few boundaries with me to keep me in the loop. She was hugely complimentary, praising me for my knowledge, my skills, my ability to relate to our client. I was told that they wanted to use this as a case study for good models of care and that they would like me to help them to roll out the training.
By this point, I was communicating across four different platforms. I was in a “ZOOM room’, with Jess. We had hours of ‘open camera’, muted, as I watched her sort baby clothes, choose his final outfit. I watched her weep, and I watched her as she attempted to provide normality to her sick baby who lay in a moses basket beside her. During these muted sessions, she continued to send me text messages, as did Jordan and the midwives. My thinking brain was fully occupied as I struggled to keep simultaneous conversations going, as I struggled with predictive text and a phone keypad. I had no time, no opportunity for critical thinking, questioning thoughts. I was completely present to her needs and to each moment in time without reflection. Each night I fell into bed at around 11:30 pm utterly exhausted, rising at 6:30am each day for more of the same.
“I’m asking too much” she kept writing. “Tell me that you wont leave me”; “Are you definitely going to be there for me”; “I cant do this”; “I’m worried about texting too much”‘ and then, “They are going to take him away”. These were phrases that were frequently repeated.
On Sunday 19th April, nine days after first contact, I received a call from my own mentor who had (with clients permission) been supporting me throughout. My mentor, Maddie, had heard bits of the story, had held space for me as I undertook this enormous task, and held me up to our local doula community as a shining example of good practice. She called and very calmly asked if I’d had visual contact with the midwives. My stomach dropped like a stone. I immediately knew that something was up and spent the next 30 minutes or so verifying that the midwives didn’t exist, that there was no Jordan and that there wasn’t even a baby. I realised that I had spent 9 days in a psychopathic fantasy with an extremely well rehearsed manipulator. By the end of the same day, I had established that she is a serial offender, that others have been victims of her emotional abuse, exploitation and fraud and others confirmed her identity from the photograph that I took just before I cut the lines that were holding us together.
So what now? I have a full download of all of the thousand or so text messages sent across the three platforms. I have a record of the 20 or so fake photos that she sent me and I have a very clear screen shot of her face. These have all been reported to the NCA (National Crime Agency)
I am making it my mission to inform as many people as possible that this has happened to me. If fraud had even remotely been on my own radar, this wouldn’t have happened. A few safety checks (visual ID at an earlier stage, proof of ID, ID with others in the ‘frame’), would have kept me safe.
She uses many aliases, many different phone numbers, she has multiple profiles across multiple social media platforms. You will recognise her not by name or phone number – you will recognise her by her style. All that I have described has a commonality with the experience of other victims. The exact story changes and her extensive medical knowledge helps her to describe different traumatic events with confidence and fluency but her basic MO is unique. This is a story of vulnerability and trauma, of desperate need, of tragedy and loss and of course, multiple crises.
I have photo ID and some other factual information which I can share if needed with individuals who think that they have come across her. I will of course need ID from those individuals first. Once bitten, always shy!
I am not considered to be naive or gullible, I am the victim (survivor) of a sophisticated crime that has been repeated many many times before by the same perpetrator.
Is the perpetrator emotionally damaged and vulnerable? Of course she is.
Does her vulnerability mitigate her crimes? No it does not.
I have consulted a psychologist who was fascinated by my story. On investigation, she has found out that this behaviour is called ‘Munchausens By Internet’. You can read her round up of this surprisingly common addiction here.