An upstate New York couple crafted a made-up story about their 9-year-old son having blood cancer to raise thousands of dollars from well-intentioned donors, according to the Cayuga County Sheriff’s Office.
Martin LaFrance and Jolene LaFrance, both 35, started a page on GoFundMe last year that claimed their son, CJ LaFrance, had late-stage Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a type of cancer that adversely impacts the lymphatic system. Though the request has since been deleted, an archive of the page that was uncovered by Syracuse.com shows the couple managed to raise $3,334 in donations as of August 30, 2017.
“CJ was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma initially, if that isn’t bad enough they were just given the news that he has a malignant tumor in his abdomen, [and] gastroperisis,” reads the page’s description, written as if it were posted by a family friend. “CJ has to go to the children’s hospital several times a week for treatments which has forced both Jolene and Marty to take a leave of absence from work.”
The archive displays a series of 42 donations from users who donated as much as $1,000. The page also shows the couple’s initial donation goal was to raise $8,000.
While touting their seemingly made-up story, the couple also visited the Syracuse University football team during one of their practices in August 2017. There, CJ played catch with players and spoke with Roy Wittke — the team’s director of player development — who himself is a two-time cancer survivor. According to Syracuse.com, CJ’s uncle played up the fake story while visiting the university, telling players and staff that his nephew’s cancer had been upgraded to Stage 3.
In a statement to PEOPLE, GoFundMe said cases of fabricated stories on their platform are rare, only making up one-tenth of one percent of all campaigns.
“With that said, there are unfortunate and rare instances where people create campaigns with the intention to take advantage of others’ generosity,” the statement reads. “The LaFrance Family has violated GoFundMe’s terms of service, and all donors will receive a refund. Additionally, they have been banned from our platform.”
The statement continues: “It’s important to remember that our platform is backed by the GoFundMe Guarantee, which means that in the rare case that GoFundMe, law enforcement or a user finds campaigns are misused, donors are fully protected and will get their money back. Additionally, we are working with law enforcement on their investigation.”
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On May 4, the Cayuga County Sheriff’s Office charged CJ’s parents with “scheme to defraud in the first degree and endangering the welfare of child,” according to a post on the office’s social media page that detailed the arrests.
“The investigation revealed conclusively that the child was never diagnosed with cancer or any other medical condition that was alleged in the GoFundMe solicitation,” the department wrote, noting that “scheme to defraud” is a felony.
The pair are scheduled to be arraigned in Town of Montezuma Court on May 16, according to Syracuse.com.
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In reality, there will be an estimated 8,500 new cases of Hodgkin lymphoma this year, according to the American Cancer Society. Symptoms of the disease include fevers, night sweats, itchy skin and the appearance of lumps on the neck, underarm, or groin of patients. The disease is typically treated with radiation and chemotherapy, depending on how advanced the cancer has become when it is detected.
The lifespan of those with the disease has improved over the last few decades, with the five-year survival rate for patients with Stage 3 Hodgkin lymphoma now at 86 percent, the organization states, while 65 percent of those with Stage 4 live to the five-year mark.
If you would like to donate to Hodgkin’s lymphoma research, consider visiting the Lymphoma Research Foundation.