ROANOKE, Va. – When these two moms aren't working or taking care of their autistic children, they're working as double agents.
Melissa Eaton is a 39-year-old single mom from Salisbury, North Carolina, and Amanda Seigler is a 39-year-old mom of six in Lake Worth, Florida. And during the last three years, the two have spent a good chunk of their free time infiltrating Facebook groups for parents of autistic children, NBC News reports.
Parents in these groups describe using dangerous and problematic methods to try to "cure" their child's autism -- which has no known cause or cure.
The parents in these groups, which range in size from double digits to the thousands, believe autism is caused by "a hodgepodge of phenomena, including viruses, bacteria, fungal infections, parasites, heavy metal poisoning from vaccines, general inflammation, allergies, gluten and even the moon."
NBC News reports that the "cures" are just as vague and confused -- from turpentine to a child's own urine and even chlorine dioxide -- a compound that the Food and Drug Administration says amounts to industrial bleach and something doctors say can cause serious harm.
Parents are reportedly giving it to their kids orally as well as through baths and enemas -- something that proponents of chlorine dioxide profit off of by publishing books, marketing the chemicals as a "cure" and producing how-to videos.
“It really weighs on you, but kids are being abused,” Eaton told NBC News. “You see it. You have the choice of doing something about it or letting it go. And I’m not the kind of person who can see something like that and just forget about it.”
To get into these groups, Eaton and Seigler pretend to be desperate parents searching for a "cure" for their child's autism. Once they're granted access to the groups, they take screenshots of posts from parents who describe giving these chemicals to the kids, often with terrifying results.
“My son is constantly making a gasping sound,” posted one Kansas mother who claimed to treat her adult son with chlorine dioxide, according to screenshots shared by Eaton and Seigler given to NBC News. “He won’t open his mouth,” a Canadian mom wrote of her 2-year-old’s unwillingness to drink the chlorine dioxide. “He screams. Spits. Flips over.”
Fueled by the horror they feel when reading what these children are forced to endure, Eaton and Siegler search for the parents online to find out who they are and where they're located. They then send the screenshots to local Child Protective Services.
The pair says they rarely hear back on whether any action was taken on the screenshots they send in, but they say they've reported more than 100 parents since 2016. They also say they've submitted their findings to the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Justice and child abuse organizations.
And for the first time, the pair is starting to see some concrete results.
Due to the growing mistrust of big tech companies and the rising concern of anti-vaccine information during a measles comeback, NBC reports that lawmakers and health advocates have turned up the heat against Facebook and other companies to stop the viral spread of misinformation and propaganda on their platforms.
Facebook, YouTube and Amazon all answered with policy changes, removing some fear-mongering content related to vaccines. Those crackdowns also swept up content related to fake autism cures, including chlorine dioxide.
But that hasn't fixed the problem.
"For every book removed from Amazon or private group shuttered on Facebook, others spring up," NBC News reports. " And proponents of chlorine dioxide are finding new corners of the internet to colonize, where their most loyal followers — parents desperate for a cure for the incurable — will continue to find them.
And for Eaton and Seigler, that means their work is far from over. To learn more about Eaton and Seigler, read the full story on the NBC News website.