Leslie Udvardi snuggles with her daughter, Esther, as the family plays board games in July 2007. Esther and her three brothers were taken from Leslie and her husband, Kirk, after she was accused of having Munchausen syndrome by proxy in December 2005. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It was lunchtime at Loma Linda Academy when the social workers arrived, escorted by a deputy sheriff.

They were there to collect the Udvardi children. Amid dozens of students munching sandwiches and chips, school officials found 6-year-old Esther, then Abram, 11, and Sam, 14. They got the eldest, Matthew, 16, just as he arrived at his American Lit class.

The children were hustled one by one to a white van in the parking lot, then whisked away even before their father, the school's band teacher, knew what was happening.

Seven miles away in Redlands, the phone rang at the family's modest tract home. Leslie Udvardi found a county social worker on the line.

The woman was blunt: Leslie had been deemed a danger to her children. They would be in the state's care until a court decided differently.

Leslie said the social worker accused her of subjecting the kids to unnecessary and often painful medical treatments. In fact, child welfare officials believed Leslie was the one who was sick, with a syndrome known by a long and forbidding name: Munchausen by proxy.

Leslie had read about it. It was a TV crime drama disease, a mental illness in which a caregiver, usually a mother, fabricates illnesses in a child to gain attention.

Certainly her children had been stricken by an unusual number of ailments, almost from birth, but Leslie told the woman she'd done everything in her power to help, not hurt, them.

The social worker kept talking: Leslie could drop off clothes and books for the children.

Leslie barely registered the details. All she could think was: They've taken my kids.

Leslie hung up and dialed her husband's cellphone.

She was "screaming in a panic," Kirk Udvardi remembered. He was being accused too, she told him, of failing to protect the children from her.

For four days, Kirk said, no one would tell either parent where their children were.

Kirk said a social worker did offer him some unsolicited advice: "You're going to really need to come out strongly against your wife. If you don't come out against your wife, there's a good chance you're not going to see your kids again."

Problems from the start

Though she'd given birth four times, Leslie never felt she'd had the chance to simply "enjoy a baby."

Her first, Matthew, was besieged by illness almost from the start: rashes, respiratory infections, eye problems and difficulties absorbing food, records show. So many complaints, Leslie recalled, that his pediatrician accused her of being a bad mother. She switched doctors.

Then came Sam. He, too, was dogged by ailments. A reflux problem meant she had to feed him formula until he was 4.

In 1994, Leslie was pregnant again. She was certain that God wouldn't give her another difficult child, she said. But Abram had to be fed through a tube in his nose. Later, he suffered seizures.