“Religious Convictions”: When Children Die, Religion Is No Defense

300px-AbrahamHere is today’s column from the Washington Post on the benefits of a new type of “good-faith” defense. While “religious convictions” are usually a reference to personal faith, it turns out that it has a distinct and disturbing meaning for criminal sentencing.

“Suffer little children to come to me.” So begins one of the most cited passages in the Bible. Yet, in cases involving the deaths of children in faith-healing families, the second half of Jesus’s admonition from Luke 18:16 is at the heart of legal controversy: “. . . and forbid them not.”

In the past 25 years, hundreds of children are believed to have died in the United States after faith-healing parents forbade medical attention to end their sickness or protect their lives. When minors die from a lack of parental care, it is usually a matter of criminal neglect and is often tried as murder. However, when parents say the neglect was an article of faith, courts routinely hand down lighter sentences. While faithful neglect makes for a poor criminal defense, it is surprisingly effective in achieving more lenient sentencing, in which judges appear to render less unto Caesar and more unto God.

This disparate treatment was evident last month in Wisconsin, a state with an exemption for faith-based neglect under its child abuse laws. Leilani and Dale Neumann were sentenced for allowing their 11-year-old daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann, to die in 2008 from an undiagnosed but treatable form of diabetes. The Neumanns are affiliated with a faith-healing church called Unleavened Bread Ministries and continued to pray with other members while Madeline died. They could have received 25 years in prison. Instead, the court emphasized their religious rationale and gave them each six months in jail (to be served one month a year) and 10 years’ probation.

During their sentencing, Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Howard said the Neumanns are “very good people raising their family who made a bad decision, a reckless decision.” He then gently encouraged them to remember that “God probably works through other people, some of them doctors.”

Compare the Neumanns’ legal treatment with a couple of other recent cases in which children were injured or killed by nonreligious neglect. Russell J. Wozniak Jr. and Jennifer Ann Wozniak, of Chippewa Falls, Wis., received basically the same sentence as the Neumanns for, the criminal complaint said, allowing their 2-year-old to wander around covered in vomit and wearing a full diaper.

Then there are the parents of Alex Washburn. The 22-month-old died after hitting his head at home in Cross Lanes, W.Va. His parents, Elizabeth Dawn Thornton and Christopher Steven Washburn, said the boy fell a lot and hit his head on the corner of a table and his chin on a toilet. They apologized for not seeking medical help and agreed to terminate their parental rights to their other children, handing over custody to the state. “I wish I did seek medical treatment for my son faster,” Washburn told the court. “That will definitely be with me for the rest of my life.” The court sentenced both parents to three to 15 years in prison.

So the Neumanns got one month in jail for six years and kept custody of their children, and the Washburns got up to 15 years in prison and agreed to give up their kids.

In a nation founded on the free exercise of religion, the legal system struggles with parents who act both criminally and faithfully in the deaths of their children. This paradox has perplexed courts for centuries. One of the earliest prosecutions of such a case occurred in England in the 1800s, when the crown charged followers of a sect known only as the Peculiar People, a name derived from a translation of the phrase “chosen people” from the book of Deuteronomy. They were accused of killing numerous children as a result of faith-healing practices.

Today, the Old Peculiars are largely gone (their faith-healing views thinned their numbers considerably), but many other sects such as Unleavened Bread Ministries have prospered. While the vast majority of fundamentalist and faith-healing parents avail themselves of a doctor’s care when faced with a dire medical condition, some religious parents continue to maintain that belief in God means belief in His power and discretion to heal. They take literally the fact that one of the names of God in the Old Testament, Jehovah-Rapha, means “I am the Lord your Physician,” and point to Exodus 15:26, where God says, “I am the Lord that heals you.”

In the four Gospels, Jesus heals the sick, including in Mark 5:34, where He cures a hemorrhaging girl who was unsuccessfully treated by doctors, saying: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace! Be cured from your illness.”

Some parents go to incredible lengths to prevent doctors from doing God’s work. Colleen Hauser of Minnesota gained national attention in May when she went into hiding with her 13-year-old son to avoid a court order that he receive chemotherapy for a Hodgkin’s lymphoma tumor growing in his chest. She was eventually forced to yield; this month, her son finished his final radiation treatment and his family says his cancer is gone.

But the Hauser case is an exception. The advocacy group Children’s Health Care Is a Legal Duty estimates that roughly 300 children have died in the United States since 1975 because care was withheld. When such parents appear in court, they often insist that they love their children and their God – an argument that receives a sympathetic hearing from judges and prosecutors.

While defendants generally show contrition for their actions, the Neumanns remained unrepentant about not calling emergency personnel until after Madeline stopped breathing. Leilani Neumann said: “I do not regret trusting truly in the Lord for my daughter’s health.” Dale Neumann told the court: “I am guilty of trusting my Lord’s wisdom completely. . . . Guilty of asking for heavenly intervention. Guilty of following Jesus Christ when the whole world does not understand. Guilty of obeying my God.”

In Oregon, the Followers of Christ church has been cited for injuries and deaths associated with its faith-healing beliefs for decades. In one 10-year period, estimated Larry Lewman, an Oregon state medical examiner, the church experienced 25 child deaths related to faith-based medical neglect. A recent case involved Ava Worthington, a 15-month-old who fell ill in 2008. Rather than call doctors, her parents – Carl Brent Worthington and Raylene Worthington — allowed a simple cyst on her neck to grow to the size of a softball as they anointed her with oil and administered small amounts of wine, according to testimony at the trial. She died of a blood infection and pneumonia.

Judge Steven L. Maurer, a circuit court judge in Clackamas County, Ore., said he would “stand by my assessment that this was wrong, wrong, wrong. This was an unnecessary tragedy.” However, the prosecutor asked for six months in prison, half the maximum sentence for misdemeanor criminal mistreatment. Maurer gave Carl Brent Worthington two months in jail and five years’ probation. Despite the record of deaths and injuries at their church, the Worthingtons were allowed to keep custody of their 5-year-old daughter and a new baby that was coming in a matter of months. They needed only to promise to bring them to a doctor for scheduled checkups.

Now another trial is pending for the family: Raylene Worthington’s parents, Jeff and Marci Beagley, were charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of their 16-year-old son, Neil Beagley. He died in 2008 from a urinary tract blockage that could have been treated with a minor surgical procedure. In cases such as this, in which courts confront repeated faith-based fatalities in a single religious community, the legal system risks becoming a facilitator, if not an accessory, to the crimes through lenient sentencing.

These cases have thrived in a gray zone left by the Supreme Court decades ago. In 1944, in Prince v. Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease, or the latter to ill health or death.” The court, however, did not expressly forbid the use of faith as a mitigating factor in sentencing – a matter left to the states. Not only does this “good-faith” exception place children at risk, it results in the troubling image of courts favoring religious parents over nonreligious parents in a nation committed to the separation of church and state.

The key to the use of such a defense is that it must involve belief in a divine being, not a particular lifestyle. In 2007, Jade Sanders and Lamont Thomas of Atlanta were convicted of malice murder and given life sentences for the death of their 6-week-old child. The defense attorneys cited the couple’s strict vegan lifestyle to explain why they fed their newborn son a diet of soy milk and organic apple juice, though during the trial Sanders said she had also breast-fed her son, who died in an emaciated state at 6 weeks, weighing just 3 1/2 pounds. The prosecutor and court had no qualms in treating this couple’s beliefs as a poor excuse for murder, calling a nutritionist and vegan expert as a witness to show that a vegan diet can be safe for an infant. In a stark contrast with religious cases, the prosecutor told the jury: “They’re not vegans, they’re baby-killers.”

The next test of the faith-based defense will be in Philadelphia, where prosecutors last month charged Herbert and Catherine Schaible in the January death of their son, Kent Schaible, 2, from bacterial pneumonia. His parents and other adults prayed around him, practicing faith-healing for two weeks without seeking medical assistance. Then they called a funeral home. The couple was charged with involuntary manslaughter and other related crimes.

Denying children critical care may be divinely ordained for some parents, but it should not be countenanced by the legal system. Until courts refuse to accept religion as a mitigating factor in sentencing in such cases, children will continue to die, neglected as articles of their parents’ faith.

Washington Post (Sunday: November 15, 2009

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