Of all the cases of harm due to quackery that I regularly discuss, the stories involving children who die preventable deaths because their parents choose prayer over medicine are among the most infuriating. What makes them so infuriating is that parents rarely suffer serious consequences for their having, in essence, killed their children through medical neglect. Even more infuriating, for those of us of a secular bent at least, is how much protecting these negligent parents is “baked into” the law of so many states. This issue came to my attention again, thanks to an article in the Washington Post
In Idaho, medical-care exemptions for faith healing come under fire:
As Willie Hughes walked around the weathered plots and mounds of dirt at Peaceful Valley Cemetery, he remembered family that died too young and his brother Steven, who was born with spina bifida.
Steven never saw a doctor or physical therapist or used a wheelchair. He crawled around on his forearms and died of pneumonia at age 3.
“I remember his was the first body that I saw and touched. It was traumatic for a 4½ -year-old to see his little brother in a coffin. I can’t tell you how many dead bodies I’ve seen,” said Hughes, a Boise truck driver who grew up in the Followers of Christ church.
One of the very earliest cases of this sort that I wrote about involved members of the Followers of Christ, that of Ava Worthington, a 15 month old girl. Ava’s parents, Carl and Raylene Worthington, let her die of a treatable pneumonia, which led.to sepsis.
The Followers of Christ was founded as a church in Kansas by Marion Reece and was rooted in Pentocostal traditions, complete with a belief in faith healing and that God decides who lives and dies. The church moved to Oklahoma in the 1890s. During the 1920s Charlie Smith (the brother-in-law) and George White began missions to California. George White’s nephew Walter White became a minister in the church and moved to Oregon City, Oregon in the 1940s after a dispute with other ministers. The Followers of Christ is not a large church, with estimates of the Church’s Oregon membership ranging from 1,200 to 1,500., where the congregation is was known for child deaths. Indeed, it has been referred to—appropriately, in my estimation—as a baby-killing cult, noting:
If you take the word of the former members, most of them claim that it didn’t start to get bad until Walter White died. While White kept the same patriarchal and anti-scientific views the church has today, he left the congregation open to outsiders and tried to lead them to Christ. Now with no real ordained minister, they just gather and sing hymns and the leaders use scare tactics to keep the church members in line and afraid to leave or even think about leaving; and considering what keeps happening to their children, the choice is literally one of life and death.
It’s not just the Followers of Christ, of course. In my same post, which is nearly 10 years old, I noted an especially horrific case. The parents were not adherents of the Followers of Christ, but rather another Christian sect that teaches its members to rely on prayer instead of medicine to treat illness. An 11-year-old girl named Madeline Neumann died of untreated type I diabetes that led to diabetic ketoacidosis. Particularly horrible was the time period over which Madeline’s parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, let their daughter suffer, a whole month. She suffered from symptoms of nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness, becoming weaker and weaker until she died. Even sadder was what this case represented at the time. Basically, it was unusual because the parents were actually prosecuted and convicted of second degree reckless homicide in 2009.
So what were their sentences? Consistent with what I’ve been saying, they were placed on ten years of probation with six months of jail time to be served over a six year period. In 2013, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld their convictions. At the time, they parents had not spent one day in prison. As of 2015, the Neumanns were reported to be opening a new coffee shop, their previous one having closed due to debt from their legal bills, although they did exhaust their appeals I could not find where they were in fulfilling their sentences. I do know, however, that their case is an example of how in our society religion is so privileged that parents whose medical neglect is based upon their religious beliefs rarely suffer much in the way of punishment when their children are harmed or due. Dale and Leilani Neuman basically viewed their daughter’s illness as a test of faith, a test they apparently passed by letting her die a slow, horrible death while they watched and did nothing to prevent it.
So what’s going on in Idaho? Given that Idaho is the capital of religion-inspired child neglect in the US, it’s nothing good:
Nearly one-third of the roughly 600 gravesites in Peaceful Valley Cemetery belong to a child, advocates say. Spotty records make it difficult to identify how and why the children died before their burial at the graveyard used by the Followers of Christ, a splinter sect that practices faith healing and believes that death and illness are the will of God. But coroner and autopsy reports gathered by advocates, and former church members’ childhood memories, tell a story of children needlessly dying from a lack of medical care.
Child advocates estimate that 183 Idaho children have died because of withheld medical treatment since states across the nation enacted faith-healing exemptions in the early 1970s. They say many of those victims are buried at Peaceful Valley.
“We assume that a lot of deaths can be prevented,” said Bruce Wingate, founder of Protect Idaho Kids Foundation.
Wingate estimates that three to four children will die this year in Idaho alone if lawmakers fail to lift the state’s faith-healing exemptions.
Nowhere else in the country is the death toll from religion-inspired medical neglect so high. There’s a reason for that. It turns out that in Idaho and more than half of the other states, there exists some form of religious exemption that allows parents to withhold medical treatment from a child if their religion forbids it. Only sixteen states have no religious exemption, and it took decades of lobbying for child advocates to finally succeed in overturning religious exemptions in Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, Oregon and Tennessee.
Oregon is a particularly interesting example that I wrote about in 2011. The bill that was passed into law then was inspired by the deaths of three children and appeared to be targeted at the Followers of Christ. At the time, I noted that I was surprised—pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless, given how rare it is for “religious freedom” to win out in these cases. It removed spiritual treatment as a defense for all homicide charges so that now, if found guilty, parents are subject to mandatory sentencing under Oregon’s Measure 11. One motivation of lawmakers to pass this bill was the hope that the possibility of long prison sentences might persuade members to reconsider their tradition of rejecting medicine in favor of prayer. Instead, it prompted a number of Followers of Christ church members to move across the border to Idaho to avoid that new law.
So what are the prospects of such a law ever passing in Idaho? Not good, by the sound of it:
Former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice turned child advocate, Jim Jones, said the GOP reluctance to legislate on religious issues stalls efforts to push a repeal of the law forward.
“Some people look at the Bible as applicable law,” Jones said of state lawmakers. Plus, he said, it’s an election year.
The deep religious veins that run through Idaho and Utah make it especially difficult to lobby the state’s lawmakers to drop religious exemptions, Swan said.
“And it’s also the independence of the Western culture. They don’t like government telling them what to do,” she said. “There’s this feeling that parental rights are absolute and religious freedom rights are absolute.”
And there you have it, the reason why this insanity continues in Idaho and some other states. Children are viewed not as autonomous beings but rather the property of their parents during the time they are being raised. I’ve written about this attitude more times than I can remember, encapsulating it with a quote by Senator Rand Paul that sums up this attitude about as close to perfectly as I can. It’s an attitude that permeates every discussion about the health care of children. He said it three years ago at the height of the Disneyland measles outbreak, when calls were just starting to be made in California to ban nonmedical “personal belief exemptions” to school vaccine mandates, calls that ultimately led to SB 277, the law that did ban nonmedical exemptions in California:”The state doesn’t own the children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom.”
Let me repeat Senator Paul’s words again: “The state doesn’t own the children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom.”
This is the attitude we have to counter, the attitude that children don’t have rights of their own as autonomous beings apart from their parents, that their parents have absolute power over them, and that the state should never interfere with that power, no matter how much it is abused. Add to that the privileged status of religion as a non-rational justification for the medical neglect of children, and you have a near-unassailable set of “parental rights.” After all, freedom of religion is one of the core bedrock values upon which this nation was founded and one of the great freedoms guaranteed us in the Constitution. However I would argue that even that freedom must not be absolute. It is the parents’ duty to provide their children food, shelter, and proper medical care. If their religion leads them to deny any of these necessities to their children, particularly in such egregious cases the ones above, then they should forfeit their right to be their children’s parents, as they have demonstrated themselves in the most egregious and unequivocal way possible to be unreliable guardians. We generally view faith as a virtue, but when that faith leads parents to let their children suffer and die of straightforward-to-treat medical conditions, then faith becomes an evil. I fail to see how anyone can view it otherwise, particularly when parents like the Neumann’s viewed their child’s suffering as a test of their faith.
This is what advocates like Rita Swan and Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD) are up against. It’s also what a lot of those of us engaged in combatting the medical neglect of children whose parents forego medicine in favor of quackery for life-threatening illnesses, because many of the belief systems leading to such choices are infused in religion.
If you want to see just how bad things are, I will recount a case that I’ve discussed many times before, that of Kent Schaible, whose parents Herbert and Catherine Schaible chose prayer instead of antibiotics to treat bacterial pneumonia. Their son, two years old at time, had been suffering from a respiratory illness for two weeks. It worsened and developed into pneumonia, as his parents prayed. The parents were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment and were sentenced to ten years of probation and had to promise to take their children to a doctor when they were ill (i.e., not to do it again). That was 2009. Guess what happened in 2013? They did it again!
Their 7-month-old son Brandon Scott died of bacterial pneumonia and dehydration, and once again Herbert and Catherine Schaible did nothing but pray as their child’s condition deteriorated and he died. Yes, it took two dead children, both of whom died under similar circumstances, before the state acted to protect the Schaible’s other children by taking their children away and sentencing them to three and a half and seven years behind bars for third degree murder. It was not enough, in my estimation. Meanwhile, their pastor Nelson Clark, has said the Schaibles lost their sons because of a “spiritual lack” in their lives.
Whether or not there was a “spiritual lack” in the lives of the Schaibles, their belief led them to reject science and critical thinking, and their children paid the price. Worse, we as a society, if not outright supportive of parental rights to decide as the Schaibles did, do not do enough to make sure that children do not die because of their parents’ beliefs.