By Shane Dixon Kavanaugh
On Feb. 5, 2013, just weeks before her 13th birthday, Syble Rossiter was at home in Albany, Oregon, gasping for breath and in critical condition. For most of the afternoon, her family had watched as she vomited violently and lost control of her bowels, eventually becoming so weak she could no longer stand. In the hours leading up to her final, fevered breaths, as Syble slowly drifted into unconsciousness and ultimately death, her parents never called a doctor or rushed her to an emergency room. As members of the General Assembly Church of the First Born, a faith-healing Christian sect, they believed that seeking medical help for their daughter would be a sign of spiritual weakness and an affront against God’s will. Instead, Travis and Wenona Rossiter tried to cure her with prayer.
Inside the Linn County Courthouse this month, the Rossiters and their defense attorneys watched silently as prosecutor Keith Stein presented images of Syble that authorities had taken at the crime scene. Gaunt and pale, the girl’s body was seated upright on her family’s living room couch in a red shirt and a pair of urine-soaked jeans. Her eyes were sunken, and her body looked dehydrated. From the witness stand, Dr. Gary Goby, the county’s medical examiner, told the jury that Syble had died from complications of a chronic and undiagnosed case of Type 1 diabetes, adding that a simple treatment of insulin and fluids could have saved her life.
Because of their inaction, the prosecutor argued, Travis and Wenona Rossiter were directly responsible for their daughter’s death. “This case is not about their religion,” he told the jurors. “It’s about the minimum standard of medical care that our laws will tolerate when it comes to our children.” The Rossiters’ defense lawyers claimed that the family had thought she only had the flu, but the jury was ultimately unmoved. Last week, the Rossiters were convicted of first- and second-degree manslaughter, which in Oregon carries a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.
The verdict is the latest in a string of convictions of faith healers who endanger their children in Oregon, where officials have been empowered by some of the strictest laws in the country since 2011, when the state eliminated the last of its religious-defense statutes. Oregon has successfully prosecuted three similar cases in the last three years, putting mothers and fathers in jail on charges of criminal mistreatment, negligent homicide and manslaughter, and sending a message to other faith-healing families that they must seek medical care for their children.
Just across the state line in Idaho, however, there are no such deterrents. During the same period of time, at least 12 children have died at the hands of faith-healing parents in the state, yet not a single charge has been filed. In Idaho, authorities do not investigate or prosecute faith-healing deaths, which occur largely without scrutiny from the public or media. Of the dozen documented cases in the last three years—and there are likely many more that have gone unreported—all were members of the Followers of Christ, a faith-healing group with a doctrine nearly identical to the Church of the First Born. The Followers are also active in Oregon, where they gained notoriety in the 1990s after a series of high-profile child deaths.
The stark contrast over a span of a few highway miles is not lost on Linda Martin, an Idaho native and former member of the Followers of Christ who attended the Rossiters’ trial in Oregon.
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