Faith-Healer Parents Who Let Their Child Die Should Go to Jail

Mar 4, 2015

Credit: itsmejust | Shutterstock.com

By Jerry A. Coyne

In America, 43 of the 50 U.S. states confer some type of civil or criminal immunity on parents who injure their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds. If your child has diabetes or a severe infection, and you pray for her instead of giving her insulin or antibiotics, she’ll probably die, but you’re largely off the legal hook. But that immunity doesn’t apply if you injure your child by withholding medical care for nonreligious reasons; for that, you can be prosecuted for neglect, abuse, or even manslaughter. This privileging of religion is dangerous to childrenand has killed many of them. In Idaho, for instance, parents are immunized against prosecution for involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide when they let their kids die in the name of faith. In fact, parents there can’t be prosecuted for anything if they rely solely on faith healing.

The Followers of Christ, a Pentacostal and literalistic sect of Christianity that rejects all medical care (including the use of midwives) in favor of prayer, flourishes in both Oregon and Idaho. But those neighboring states differ strongly in how they deal with faith-based treatment. In 2011, Oregon eliminated all religious exemptions from required medical care. In that state, members of faith-healing sects, like the parents of 13-year-old Syble Rossiter,have been convicted of manslaughter for relying on prayer instead of doctors. Rossiter, who had juvenile-onset diabetes, met a particularly horrible death, one completely avoidable had she been given insulin.

But just over the border, in Idaho, parents can expect no prosecution when their children die after an ineffective dose of prayer. That state’s lax “Child Protective Act” explicitly says that “no child whose parent or guardian chooses for such child treatment by prayers through spiritual means alone in lieu of medical treatment shall be deemed for that reason alone to be neglected or lack parental care necessary for his health and well-being.” And because of that provision, children of religious parents die in droves. At least a dozen Idaho children have succumbed in the last four years after being given faith healing rather than medial treatment, but not one parent has been prosecuted. In one Followers of Christ cemetery, 35 percent of the graves are of newborns or minor children, implying a child mortality rate among Followers more than tenfold higher than among Idaho residents as a whole.

Idaho is doing nothing to stop the carnage because, after all, its legislators were the ones who passed that religious-exemption law in 1972. An attempt to rescind the law last year failed: The speaker of the Idaho House wouldn’t even let that bill have a hearing. New legislation is in the works, but it has a slim chance of passing, so children will continue to die with Idaho’s knowledge and complicity.


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40 comments on “Faith-Healer Parents Who Let Their Child Die Should Go to Jail

  • 1
    Miserablegit says:

    It is a no brainier that parents whose child has died as a result of not allowing them proper medical healthcare should go to jail. It is simply wilful neglect and a contempt for the child’s life.



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  • 3
    RandyPing says:

    I totally agree 100%. Vaccinate your kids, because you don’t have a right to endanger the public. Take your kids to real doctors, not quacks and faith (not) healers.



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  • Whilst we’re at it, lets go large…

    It would be nice if their pastor came in for some punishment or other for commissioning the crime or inciting the harm.

    In fact, whilst I want to eliminate the crime of hate speech as not reasonably testable and replace it with incitement to violence, it might be better formed and more useful as incitement to harm. Hmmm?



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  • It is more important to get the child care than punish parents after death. They are not malicious, just deluded. The death itself is strong punishment.



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  • The greatest need is to have parents in risk groups feel scrutinised and under threat if their children become ill. Unless these people get to police themselves, through fear if necessary, there will never be enough resources to protect their children.



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  • Just like the Federal government has child labor laws, it should enact laws to protect the lives of children, where basic medical care is concerned.

    There is something cowardly about a governing body who will step in to provide protection for adult’s human rights, but regard children as undeserving.

    By that reasoning, I assume Idaho is about to be flooded with Muslims who will go unpunished for practicing their religious freedoms where their female children are concerned.

    Isn’t it a constitutional violation to enact any law conferring special privileges, or penalty, due to religious beliefs? Didn’t Utah have to abolish polygamy if it was to become a state?

    The Feds are snoozing their way through this one.



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  • 9
    Scribblerlarry says:

    This is one of those tricky little things that always catch average Americans totally unprepared from not having thought it through. This leaves them to make a quick decision, usually based on the options offered.

    Look folks, we all agree that it is wrong to harm a child or through inaction allow a child to come to harm, BUT these religious parents are firmly convinced that they are doing the right thing. They’ve got it wrong and their child dies. That’s wrong number one.

    So if we come along and jail them as a punishment instead of getting them into treatment for their obvious mental aberration, we commit the second wrong.

    An’ two wrongs don’t make a right! And you KNOW that too!

    Now these people are trying to do the best they can in a confusing and crazy old world. Our society doesn’t exactly help to stabilize those with mental lacks or variations. We aren’t doing our part here now. Until we can really offer a rational, stable and supportive society that has tackled, with reason, most of its population’s problems, who the heck are we to decree punishment for actions and beliefs that have the support of far too many of our citizens? That’s like punishing someone for getting wet when they’re caught in a rain storm, isn’t it?



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  • 11
    Scribblerlarry says:

    Gregg,
    Judging by America’s great success with putting people in jail I guess it’s only natural for you to assume that the slammer is the answer to the problem.

    Yes, Gregg, I have no doubt that it’ll take quite some time for America to get a handle on this mental health problem and learn how to handle it properly and efficiently. Yes, I expect that some children will die in the meantime. But sticking their parents in jail only (usually) means that their other children get taken over by relatives who are likely of the same nutty religious ideas or other non-related church members. Do you see much good coming out of that?

    The modern American society is complex and has many problems. Jail is not the answer for ANY of them. Not one. High quality mental health facilities would cost far less and be far more effective. But the voters want to vote for politicians who promise to stomp on anyone who does anything wrong. Punish them! Hurt them! Make them into slave labourers! (but not in my field of work – I don’t need the competition). Starve them! And “for god’s sake, lower the taxes!!!!……. DO NOT spend any money on them!”

    When they come out they’ll be good productive citizens who can’t get a job. That should enrich society. What will you bet that they’ll also be just the greatest parents you ever saw too! After all, every jail teaches parenting skills, don’t they?

    .



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  • I am not sure if you are implying that unvaccinated people are therefore not a threat to the population in general. They pose a grave risk to infants and those whose other sicknesses or allergies make vaccination impossible. In that respect, they are indeed a social risk.



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  • In general, yes. But I have read of at least one case where parents who had already killed a child by ‘faith’ healing, simply carried on and killed another of their children. Prosecution in the first instance might have saved the second child’s life.



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  • Prosecution in the first instance might have saved the second child’s life.

    Completely agree. A big stick has no threat if you don’t intend to use it. But what we need is prophylaxis not just bolts for stable doors.



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  • Larry, How considerate of you to assume that because others opt for more than a kinder, gentler treatment option for those who would stand idly by – other than the obligatory prayer to a god who never answers – while their completely dependant child slowly dies in pain, that we haven’t “thought it through.”

    Your faith in government to “do the right thing” can best be described as idealistic. While idealism is not to be disparaged as unworthy of human pursuit, being the root of human progress, neither are more practical matters to be ignored. Your willingness to sacrifice “some children” in whom you have no vested interest speaks volumes about your nature.

    I’ll keep on promoting locking up those with a proven record of harming and/or killing others, and you can promote turning jails and prisons into mental health facilities. It’s not that I disagree with your ends; it’s the price you’re willing to pay in the interim that I find unconscionable.



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  • I have always been told that children in the US are the “property” of their parents, whilst in other more normal societies parents are regarded as “guardians”. In a court in most countries, the parents can be ordered to be supervised by social workers, or a a last resort the child can be taken into care. The problem of religious nutters was solved in Western Australia, by making their children wards of court for the duration of the medical emergency, and then returning custody to the parents afterwards. There is always a lay magistrate on duty, 24/7, and hospitals and doctors have a well understood procedure for taking emergency action.

    Courts are bound to find “in the best interests of the child”.



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  • “Criminal negligence causing harm or death ” is a crime here in Canada, although I’m sure there are people out there that will still claim ” religious persecution ”



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  • If a parent is killing their second child, 6 months in jail probably will not discourage them. They imagine an eternity of torment for permitting care. You can’t wait till the child dies. As soon as anyone notices a child is being denied medical care, child protective services should step in and seize the child, same as if the parents had it chained in a closet.

    What is your priority, protecting the child, or smashing the teeth in of their aggressively ignorant parents?



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  • < whimsy >

    To understand these people, perhaps we need to look for something analogous to Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. Obviously, one principle they follow is “Life Is Sacrosanct”, which is what drives them to go nuts over abortions. Equally obviously, it’s not the highest principle, because of their attitude to capital punishment. That one is presumably something along the lines of “An Eye For An Eye”, and it trumps “Life Is Sacrosanct”. Yet another principle must be higher than “Life Is Sacrosanct”, otherwise they wouldn’t substitute prayer for medical treatment. So here’s my first draft of the Three Laws of Religious Nutjobs

    (1) Trust in the [insert deity, prophet, or guru here]

    (2) An eye for an eye, except where this violates (1)

    (3) Life is sacrosanct, except where this violates (1) or (2)

    See it’s all perfectly logical

    < /whimsy >



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  • eejit, Where you may find comfort in simplistic, broad generalizations, contrary to what you have been told, the US has much more complex laws than “regarding children as property.” I’m sure we could have a lengthy finger-pointing debate about whose country has the worse record concerning human rights, trying to sort history from speculation, but what’s the point of that? The US is as an imperfect an experiment as is your country, evolving just as does most of the rest of the civilized world.

    It’s possible I’m a bit touchy right now. I just watched old news coverage of Palestinians dancing in the streets and handing out candy on 9/11. I’m bothered by the sort of “ism” that disregards others to the point of harm. Those who cross that line step out of the realms of fairness and eqaulity, in need of being separated from we “normal” ones. Be it an adult who harms a child, or a nut who can’t wait to molest 72 imaginary virgins, I consider them foes, not part of our “normal” society.

    MadEnglishman – lol. Their logic, for want of a better term, is biblically-based, and thus has the same GIGO results. I don’t suppose anyone with the wherewithal to do so has ever tried to construct a logic diagram of the bible; I would have enjoyed Monty Python’s version.



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  • You may well be right about my limited intellectual capacity. I have lived for long periods of time in three countries, so I am not sure which I would describe as mine, and I now live in a community of 28 states, which is an infinitely more complex entity than the United States. In none of the countries in which I have lived, or with which I am associated, is it permitted for parents who are religious nutters to murder their children by omission, or in any other way, for any reason.

    Furthermore all these countries have proper health services, no death penalty and a much lower incidence of infant mortality than the land of the free. The United States has 2 ¼ million people in prison and 30 000 deaths by shooting per annum. None of these bald facts points to the US being a normal country, unless perhaps by comparison with the Islamic State or North Korea. Most countries do not allow police officers to take pot shots at black people when they feel like it.

    In the circumstances, it’s difficult to be anything but simplistic.



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  • I would be very curious to know if any of the adults ever avail themselves of medical treatment either openly or surreptitiously or if the prayer is used exclusively on children??



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  • Unvaccinated children are a high risk to other children not yet old enough to be vaccinated or are not vaccinated for medical reasons. Choosing to be unvaccinated for any reason other than medical ones endangers innocent lives.



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  • Larry. anyone can refuse medical help or anything else for themselves, but you cannot deny to another human being what that person needs to survive. Child or not.



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  • I could not agree more. The parents can pray all they like, but not in place of proper medical treatment. Otherwise, it is a kind of abuse to withold medical treatment. And yet we still hear about ‘persecution’ of Christians these days!



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  • “The United States has 2 ¼ million people in prison and 30 000 deaths by shooting per annum. None of these bald facts points to the US being a normal country, unless perhaps by comparison with the Islamic State or North Korea. Most countries do not allow police officers to take pot shots at black people when they feel like it.”

    Why are folks taking “pot shots” at the United States? Either you can start to understand my country from the bottom up and read up on American (and world) history or you can start from the top down, and start to understand why everyone in the world wants to come here not just to work or visit but to become “American.” None of these remarks comes to you by way of patriotism. The U.S. is a young nation of settlers whose population has mushroomed with waves of immigration from all over the world. Homogenous educated static European populations cannot understand the violence, conflicts and dysfunctions that emerge from the clash of diverse cultures and races exploding on the scene within a short time frame. Come to think of it, you’re getting a taste of it now.



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  • Why are folks taking “pot shots” at the United States? Either you can start to understand my country from the bottom up and read up on American (and world) history or you can start from the top down, and start to understand why everyone in the world wants to come here not just to work or visit but to become “American.”

    Melvin. You are living in the past. You are living the “American Dream” which has become a nightmare. (If the American dream ever really existed) The rest of us free worlders despair at what America has become. This may be your history, but what passes as civilization has moved on, leaving America stuck back in the 50’s, fighting the cold war and thinking that Leave it to Beaver is how every family should be.

    Religiously crazy people killing children is no longer acceptable civilized behaviour. That America hasn’t sidelined the radically religious, like the rest of the free world has done is just one example of how you are now a montage exhibit in a historical museum. This will come as a shock, but no we don’t want to become “Americans.” At the end of the second world war in the 50’s that may have been true, but now with the advance of civilization we don’t want to live in a world where guns are not controlled. Where both your political parties are considered right wing, and extreme right wing by modern civilized norms. Where universal health care in a modern country is a right, not communism. Where the extremes of the free market are regulated and this also is no communism. Where global warming represents a clear, urgent and present danger and not a punching bag for the oil rich and extreme right wing media.

    We desperately need America to catch up or you will end up being a neo theocratic relic of little relevance to what is coming over the horizon.

    Come to think of it, you’re getting a taste of it now.

    Right back at ya… In 2015, a clash of cultures cannot be used as an excuse for killing people. It is uncivilized to have the murder and incarceration rate you have. It is uncivilized to let religious extremist kill children.



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  • So you’re saying (correct me if I’m wrong), that though the actions (or inaction) of the parents may be stupid and irresponsible (and in some jurisdictions illegal), we should deal with them with more understanding – therapy not jail time – because after all they had good intentions?

    I think not.

    I’ve heard the same logic floated by lawyers defending a guy in his late 20s who “married” a 12 year old in her parents’ backyard and then got her pregnant. The prosecutor said he was a child abuser, dozens of counts, pure and simple.
    The defence attorney suggests that he was well intentioned (and yes, religious beliefs play a big part in this), he thought he was doing the right thing, and didn’t see anything wrong with his actions (and obviously neither did anyone in the circles he moved in, including the girl’s parents). So that’s not so bad after all. Let him off lightly please, Judge.

    How is that different?

    Well-intentioned but outrageously stupid (or ignorant) is not a defence, and it’s a slippery slope if we let it become one.

    I would suggest the opposite approach: throw the book at them, maximum sentence and maximum publicity. If by making an example of them, we save at least one child from a preventable death (or abuse), it’ll have been worth it.



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  • If you’re ascribing this death (after the fact) to a mental health condition, it begs the question – why can’t we take pre-emptive action against others with a similar mental health condition?

    If it’s a genuine mental health condition, we should be rounding up the rest of the nut jobs before any more children die.

    On the other hand, if no one (in the psychiatric profession and justice system) is willing to make such a diagnosis – and treat the children as at-risk – until after a child has died, then I’d say the diagnosis is worthless, and the parents should be treated as eccentric but not mentally ill, and the death of the child is just a crime (with no excuse).



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  • “everyone in the world wants to come here”

    Well, Melvin, I’ve been accused of exageration and over generalisation!

    I spent 31 years in Australia, which has as big, if not a bigger intermingling of races and colours. Look at the comparable figures for crime, violence, imprisonment and social services delivery: there is no comparison.

    I read a good deal of history, enough to know that whilst history explains tragic situations, it does not provide an excuse for allowing them to continue.

    The U.S. is a young nation of settlers whose population has mushroomed with waves of immigration from all over the world. Homogenous educated static European populations cannot understand the violence, conflicts and dysfunctions that emerge from the clash of diverse cultures and races exploding on the scene within a short time frame.

    I don’t think that you could have visited anywhere in Europe in the last fifty years. Not only is there free movement within the EU, but we have vast numbers of refugees and migrants from Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.

    Talking of violence, did you ever come across The Great War, WW2 and various recent problems in the Balkans during your extensive historical readings?



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  • 35
    bonnie says:

    A tragic case (here), has not of yet seen criminal justice.

    In a nutshell, a man was accused of killing his wife and unborn breech child due to his “personal religion”. Witnesses testified the mother at first went along with “pray over this”, but then tried to obtain professional medical care when the emergency got hot.



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  • I intended to respond with what I admit was “exaggeration and over-generalization” to the comment I quoted verbatim: “None of these bald facts points to the US being a normal country, unless perhaps by comparison with the Islamic State or North Korea.” Fighting sloppiness with sloppiness is never justified but folding vicious falsehoods into vile slander cannot be countenanced in responsible discussion. We must get back to the topic now.



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  • I think it’s even worse than that; it’s the manifestation of the solipsistic vanity and arrogance engendered by blind religious belief.

    Could it be that they are now telling themselves that god didn’t want their child to continue living, and that they have done the right thing by obeying his will?



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  • If abortion on demand is legal, then would you jail for several years a parent who let a child die that was born pre-term or born with significant health issues – eg. severe congenital abnormality such as Edwards syndrome? (whereas the mother could have had a legal abortion earlier).

    If the child has “diabetes or a severe infection” that suggests they could have significant health issues later in life? so why put the child through the suffering later?

    Unfortunately in the american heath care system getting treatment for an ill child can be very expensive, unless have good medical insurance, and can bankrupt the family, even meaning loosing their house, car, etc.



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  • Stephen Bridgett #38
    Sep 30, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    If abortion on demand is legal, then would you jail for several years a parent who let a child die that was born pre-term or born with significant health issues – eg. severe congenital abnormality such as Edwards syndrome? (whereas the mother could have had a legal abortion earlier).

    Where there are proper scientific medicine based services, rather than ignorant dogmatic religious preconceptions intruding into health legislation, prospective parents can have tests which show up these sorts of abnormalities in time to have abortions when appropriate.

    They therefore should, with competent counselling, usually be able to avoid these difficult belatedly discovered situations, unless their thinking is perverted by religious dogmas.

    https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6321/trisomy-18

    Trisomy 18 is a chromosome disorder characterized by having 3 copies of chromosome 18 instead of the usual 2 copies.
    Signs and symptoms include severe intellectual disability; low birth weight; a small, abnormally shaped head; a small jaw and mouth; clenched fists with overlapping fingers; congenital heart defects; and various abnormalities of other organs.
    Trisomy 18 is a life-threatening condition; many affected people die before birth or within the first month of life.
    Some children have survived to their teenage years, but with serious medical and developmental problems. Most cases are not inherited and occur sporadically (by chance).




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  • Sometimes the law catches up with these delusional menaces!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-australia-41423491

    An Australian wellness blogger who falsely claimed to have cancer has been fined A$410,000 (£240,000, $322,000) for misleading her readers.

    She launched a successful app and cookbook, but later admitted the diagnosis was made up.

    Ms Gibson was found guilty of five breaches of consumer law in March.

    A judge at the time said Ms Gibson may have “genuinely” believed what she was saying, and might have suffered from “delusions” about her health.

    She did not attend the Federal Court of Australia in Melbourne on Thursday to hear the penalty handed down.

    Ms Gibson built a social media empire off claims she had cured her cancer with Ayurvedic medicine, oxygen therapy and a gluten and refined sugar-free diet.

    “Her ‘pitch’ overwhelmingly used groups likely to evoke sympathy because of their vulnerabilities – young girls, asylum seekers, sick children,” Justice Debbie Mortimer said in March.



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