(PENNSAUKEN, N.J.) — A New Jersey mother faces arrest for an alleged scam in which she told her 9-year-old son, family and friends that the boy had stage three cancer.
Susan Stillwaggon, 35, of Pennsauken, N.J., has been charged with theft by deception, forgery, endangering the welfare of a child and using a child to commit a criminal offense.
Stillwaggon allegedly told her son, that he had stage three Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and she accepted at least $3,500 in funds raised for the boy.
Police said “quite a few” people have been identified as victims of the scam, and they are looking for others.
“Stillwaggon led her son to believe that he suffered from the fatal illness,” the Pennsauken Township Police Department said in a news release. “Investigation confirmed that the boy does not suffer from any life-threatening illnesses.”
An anonymous tip led police to investigate Stillwaggon.
“There were events held,” Pennsauken Detective Sgt. Cheryl Duffy told ABCNews.com. “There were probably 10 different people that organized some kind of something, be it a cupcake sale or those little Livestrong-type rubber bracelets. I’ve got kids walking around with canisters, and I’ve got Bingo events.”
Stillwaggon has not been arrested yet, because she’s in the hospital receiving psychiatric treatment, her mother told Duffy, he said.
“She told him he has cancer,” Duffy said of the young boy. “That’s why she’s charged with endangering the welfare of a child.”
The New Jersey Division of Children and Families has become involved in the case but said it found no signs of physical abuse. The charge of endangering the welfare of a child stems from mental abuse or neglect as defined by law.
Police do not believe that any other family members knew about the alleged hoax, including the boy’s father.
“It’s actually plausible why he didn’t catch on,” Duffy said. “It’s a single-income family, and he’s the sole breadwinner. He’s a truck driver gone for extended periods of time. Mom’s a stay-at-home mom in charge of all the kids’ appointments, so it was whatever she relayed to him.”
Members of the Stillwaggon family did not respond to requests for comment by ABC News. Duffy said that as of Thursday, Stillwaggon had not retained an attorney.
Yale University professor of psychology Alan Kazdin said that caring for the child right now was very important.
“Is there a potential for trauma? Absolutely,” Kazdin told ABCNews.com. “We’re concerned about trauma. We’re concerned about anxiety.”
Kazdin, who is not involved in the case, said the boy is the victim of a “double whammy.” He was told he was sick and then found out he wasn’t, but learned that his mother was allegedly lying.
“He’s got two things going on that are really bad,” Kazdin said. “He’s got the weird situation that a horrible thing happened — he was told he was [really sick] — and once it comes out in the open, it gets worse in another way.”
It’s possible that the boy could be humiliated or potentially even have people try to take things out on him as a result of his mom’s alleged actions, Kazdin said.
“Separation from mom is a third part,” he said. “Separation from your most significant other. That’s huge for a child.”
Kazdin said it was important for the boy to connect to a support system and maintain routines during this time. He suggested that the people around him should look out for red flags, such as sleepless nights, depression or avoiding going to school, where people may ridicule him.
The scam had allegedly been going on since the beginning of March, but Duffy believes it might have been going on for longer.
Stillwaggon’s first court appearance is scheduled for May 2, 2013.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
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