Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue didn’t have a role last summer and fall when an Idaho Legislature interim committee began to study a loophole in our law that allows children in Idaho to die because their parents do not believe in seeking medical care for them.
Donahue had no vote during the 2017 session when the Legislature failed to remedy a situation that protects parents in the Followers of Christ denomination from prosecution if their children perish because they avoid medical care and instead pray for God’s will when their children are deathly ill.
“I had three (deaths in his jurisdiction) just last year, November and December,” he said. “Two infants and an older child.” But there have been many more children through the years with common, treatable illnesses who deserved a chance to be healed –– which their parents reject because they deem it evil.
“Food poisoning. Dehydration. We can’t treat that? A fever?” Donahue, appearing before the Statesman Editorial Board this week, could only shake his head in a mix of disbelief and frustration.
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I feel the same way as the outspoken sheriff, who can’t change the law that he must follow in Idaho. For a long time I didn’t quite believe it was happening. But I don’t get the calls like Donahue –– notifications from the coroner or his deputies that it has happened again, another victim of the deadly loophole that strangles justice for these innocents.
It puzzles him that members of the Legislature, whom he considers friends and political allies on other matters, can talk about the sanctity of life in any other context but accept that some parents in the church allow none of it when all they would have to do is call an ambulance. These are the same parents, he says, who will seek treatment for farm animals but turn a blind eye to medical treatment for their kids.
Some live. Some die.
What made this real to me was the conclusion last year of Gov. Butch Otter’s task force — the Child Fatality Review Team — that “10 children died in the past three years in circumstances where upon review of medical records, proper medical care would have saved them. ... The medical care was lacking because of religious beliefs.”
That made me a believer. I don’t get the twisted and tortured reasons our lawmakers are allowing this.
When it comes to matters of faith I have muscles for tolerance –– but there is nothing in my being that can accept that children be subjected to sickness, even unto death, because parents think that is some divine appointment. Adults, you can make yourself a martyr all day long –– but don’t force it on your children.
I had a long conversation with Canyon County Coroner Vicki DeGeus-Morris, who has been called to many of these deaths by the parents. She and Donahue work together, but they differ on whether the loophole that protects these sanctified sacrifices should end.
Donahue wants the loophole removed and so do I. DeGeus-Morris said she would seek medical care for her own sick child, but she stops short of judging the Followers of Christ for following their beliefs.
“I don’t believe in judging people, I believe in doing my job,” she said. Sometimes her job is to order an autopsy.
One of the parents of a dead child once said to DeGeus-Morris: “We don’t need to know what the autopsy results are. It was God’s will.”
No, it was the parents’ will. The child was never afforded the opportunity to decide.
So here we are at that intersection of faith and life and death, where the Idaho Legislature lives, and where innocents are allowed to die.
I am thankful Donahue is determined about what must be done. No matter how risky or awkward it seems to get between a people and their faith, this is about saving the children.