A wave of news about faith healing deaths or near deaths has come out in the past few years associated with a religious community known as The Followers. The Followers of Christ have their roots in the teachings of the Christian Science church founded by Mary Baker Eddy. Eddy grew rich and famous by teaching others how to “heal” themselves and others without officially practicing medicine. Many of Eddy’s followers recovered through the normal course of the illness or had illnesses that make life difficult but not end it. If they died, it was “God’s Will”. And, it was their choice, thanks to religious freedom, to allow their child or themselves to forego additional treatment and die.
Some of The Followers settled in Oregon City, Oregon and expected the world would end in 1969. When it didn’t, they took over the town. Modern society and local officials clashed with the secretive and closed society who saw themselves as chosen and superior. Everyone else was called “worldly” (a sinful thing) and but considered ignorant. These religious groups suffer from group think and resemble a cult - its members brainwashed, its woman second-class citizens. It is not rare that the women die in (home) childbirth or the babies die soon after birth with no medical attention. Their need to remain a closed society results in genetic similarities that exacerbate the problems with their offspring.
In In the Name of God: The True Story of the Fight to Save Children from Faith-Healing Homicide, Cameron Stauth explains the inside workings of the Followers community and the outside fight to overturn religious shield laws that protect faith healing parents.
The Followers of Christ, with settlements in Oregon, Idaho and California, turned out to be one of the most lethal churches in America basing their teachings on literal interpretation of the Bible, medical avoidance, shunning, and fear of Hell. But there are others.
Two Philadelphia faith-healing churches have a legacy of dead children. They even have two-time offenders (read about the Schaibels below). According to a NBC10 news investigation, families in the congregation of the Faith Tabernacle Congregation in North Philadelphia and First Century Gospel Church in Juniata Park have lost more than two dozen children to illnesses including measles, hemophilia and tumors since 1971, according to non-profit Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc. (CHILD, Inc.). Both churches believe in the power of prayer over modern medicine.
What the law allows
Rita Swan runs CHILD, Inc. and is a long-time advocate for changing “religious shield” laws across the country. These laws, which vary across states, protect parents by allowing faith-based exemptions for mistreatment and even death. Swan suffered the loss of her own son, Matthew, after following church advice when she was a member of the a Christian Science community. She then walked away from the church and has been tirelessly working for the rights of children and against faith healing and quackery.
Children ill from treatable conditions like intestinal blockages, kidney disease, and growths that impaired breathing and sight are left to suffer and die in these religious communities. In Stauth’s book, the medical examiner of Clackamas County, Oregon, where The Followers reside, recounts the several autopsies of children who died from preventable conditions. It’s difficult to read and more difficult to understand for those of use with children and family physicians.
A Portland, Oregon news station followed a trail of Followers to Idaho where they found 144 graves of children under 18 years old, over 20% of the entire cemetery. As church members left the fold and spoke to officials and the media, it was clear that their lifestyle promoted family, faith and community over routine medical treatment. Because of this, more children die during birth or shortly after in these communities. Young people go untreated for medical complications that cost them bouts of pain and suffering for life. Or, they die from diabetes, a burst appendix or food poisoning. The religious shield law in Idaho protects parents acting out of religious faith from prosecution, putting the individual rights (of the child) secondary to religious rights of the parents and posting no deterrents to this sacrificial thinking about life.
The Oregon religious shield law was also particularly egregious. That law is now gone thanks mainly to the work of Rita Swan. The law in Idaho was marked for change after the outing of the many deaths there, but the legislature wimped out, possibly fearing a drawn out debate about religious freedom.
Christian Scientists were given special protection under Washington law. But that could change as well as the legislature seeks to remove the exemption for “faith- based or metaphysical healing efforts.”
Amazingly, Idaho, Iowa, and Ohio have laws allowing religious defenses to manslaughter; West Virginia for murder of a child and child neglect resulting in death; Arkansas with a religious defense to capital murder. Unbelievable! [Source: CHILD, Inc.]
Parents let off easy
The lawyer for Jacqueline Crank, a mother found guilty of a misdemeanor neglect charge from the death of her 15 yr old daughter, contends that “A parent has an absolute constitutional right to rely on faith.” Most of us disagree; we do not interpret the Constitution to say that any certain personal right supersedes the rights for a child to receive critical medical care.
When her child, Jessica, developed a tumor on her shoulder, Crank was advised by Ariel Ben Sherman (Jessica’s “spiritual father”) to rely on prayer alone, not medical care. Jessica died in 2002 of a rare bone cancer. The case was appealed in order to force the state of Tennessee to clearly determine the rights of the parents to choose faith over medicine. Crank and Sherman received only probation for withholding medical care.
Another set of parents avoided jail in Oregon after they relied on prayer to heal their son, Austin, after his appendix ruptured. Russel and Brandi Bellew pleaded guilty to charges of criminally negligent homicide in a plea agreement in 2012. They received 5 years’ probation. If they had been on trial for manslaughter and found guilty, they would have faced years in jail.
Many of these parents convicted of medical neglect have other children as well. The Bellews were required to contact a doctor whenever any of their six surviving children are ill enough to miss a day of school. Many of the children who are ill are in their teens and because of their religious upbringing refuse medical care for themselves. They are caught in the trap.
Many parents dig deeper into their faith after the death of a child since they continue to believe it was God’s Will. They are praised by their community for their strength. The parents are in denial that they had been irresponsible and had betrayed their child’s trust through their own self interests. Hypocritically, several of The Follower adults will sneak medical care for themselves such as a visit to a dentist of eye doctor, but withhold basic care from their children. It does make you loathe them. However, on trial, their agony of being without a child is palpable. The parents are also victims, caught in a culture without obvious choices or viable option of escape. They feel forced to submit, their deliberate ignorance, they believe, will protect them.
Times are changing, but too slowly
Mindless, harmful practices against a child’s well-being are not tolerated by wider society. Most citizens, even religious ones, and most judges agree that religious rights do not trump child welfare, especially when your beliefs lead to death or disability of a child. Society and the courts hold that personal spiritual beliefs need to meet broader moral and ethical (secular) standards that are widely adopted.
The Schaibel children were betrayed by the law. After Kent Schaible, the son of Herbert and Catherine Schaible of the Philadelphia area, died as a result of withholding medical care, the Schaibles were charged with involuntary manslaughter. The Schaibles are lifelong members of the faith-healing First Century Gospel Church. They received probation but broke the agreement when another child, 7-month old Brandon, was not taken for health care and died in 2013 from pneumonia. They pled no contest to third degree murder and were sent to prison. They have seven other children.
Will jail time deter this ingrained process of anointing with oil and prayer vigils instead of hospital visits? It’s a fine start.
Local law enforcement in Lane County, Oregon, where the Bellews reside, undertook extensive outreach to church members by making it clear that medical neglect of a child won’t be tolerated. The church was cooperative in the communication where the officials explained the State laws and they urged parents to call a doctor whenever there is a health-related concern regarding a child or consequences would follow.
The churches may finally, perhaps, be changing as insiders defect and tell of the sad conditions and the spotlight shines hot on these enclaves of anti-science religious fundamentalism. The pattern of prosecution is changing too as the laws get stronger and officials become more bold. Taking care of your kids includes basic health care which means children will be removed from parents’ custody if they fail in this responsibility.
This past week, we saw two examples of a tougher stance. In one case, a mother lost custody of her infant son after she refused to provide him medical care when he was failing to thrive due to her vegan diet. She was a fringe Seventh Day Adventist who eschewed medical care. The baby is now in better health due to the intervention.
Wenona and Travis Rossiter were found guilty of manslaughter in the first and second degree in association with the death of their 12-year-old daughter, Syble, who died last year from diabetic ketoacidosis – an easily treatable condition. The state argued that the parents were negligent in not giving her proper medical care. The parents claimed ignorance and say they thought she had the flu. They belonged to the Church of the First Born which views seeking outside medical care as a weakness in faith. Travis Rossiter admitted he believes it was a sin to see a doctor. The jury didn’t buy ignorance as an excuse. They await sentencing.
Providing a child access to modern healthcare is a fundamental necessity. Only when a society strongly declares that such harmful beliefs do not trump the well-being of a child will this deadly and abusive tenet of religion fade away. The longer it takes, the more children suffer and die from dangerous faith-based superstitions.