State Politics

Child deaths bring urgency to debate over faith healing

Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, front center, said he would give attention to a bill to remove legal protections for parents who choose faith healing over medical treatment in cases in which a child is seriously injured or dying.
Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, front center, said he would give attention to a bill to remove legal protections for parents who choose faith healing over medical treatment in cases in which a child is seriously injured or dying. The Associated Press

A bill challenging Idaho’s exemptions for faith healers whose children are injured or die could have a better shot at a hearing this year.

“If they want to bring it to my committee, I’ll be happy to hear the bill,” said Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls.

Heider, chairman of Senate Health and Welfare, said he has been researching the issue, including talking to the prosecutor and assistant coroner in Canyon County, where many of the Followers of Christ church live.

The church rejects modern medicine in favor of prayer and anointing with oil, and it has gotten negative attention in Idaho and Oregon because of the higher-than-usual number of members’ children who die, sometimes from treatable causes.

Oregon changed its laws in 1999 and again in 2011 to remove spiritual treatment as a defense in cases where someone dies. But Idaho code contains protection, added in 1972, for “a parent or guardian who chooses for his child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone.”

Heider said that he visited a Followers of Christ’s church a couple of weeks ago and that he views the issue as “really not a child protection issue. This is a freedom of religion issue.” Heider said the church’s members are acting not from malice but from their interpretation of the New Testament.

“They’re wonderful people,” he said. “And they love their children just like you and I love our children.”

Boise Democrat John Gannon wrote a bill in 2014 to remove legal protections for parents who choose faith healing over medical treatment in cases in which a child is seriously injured or dying, but he couldn’t get a hearing on it. Gannon plans to keep working on it this session, pointing to a report the state Child Fatality Review Team released in April 2015 as evidence that children have died recently because of the exemption.

The team, which consisted of medical examiners, coroners, law enforcement and health care representatives, studied child deaths throughout Idaho. It found two cases in 2012 in which children died in families because the parents did not seek medical help due to religious beliefs — one who died from complications from diabetes, and one who died from a prolonged gastrointestinal illness.

“I’m thinking we need to take a look at this with this new evidence,” Gannon said.

The report recommends changing the law to allow state intervention when “the child’s death or severe disability is imminent and would, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, be prevented by the administration of appropriate medical care.” Its authors stress they would not change the law to mandate routine medical care in cases in which the parents object. Gannon agreed that any legislation would have to be “firm but narrow in its application.”

Gannon’s bill was assigned to the Judiciary and Rules Committee in 2014, and Heider said it could still go either there or through State Affairs. But Heider said it would make the most sense for the bill to go through his committee.

Erwin Sonnenberg, a review team member who was Ada County coroner for 36 years, said he couldn’t talk about specific cases, but “just from general experience, the ones I know involving faith healing, had they been to a doctor, almost all of them could have been alive.”

Sonnenberg, who retired about a year ago, did autopsies throughout Southwest Idaho. He saw cases in which children died from appendicitis, spinal meningitis or caught a cold that developed into something more serious, he said. He also saw recurring genetic defects that killed multiple children in the same family.

He estimated there are fewer than two cases a year of children from faith-healing families dying from treatable causes, and he supports changing the law to get rid of the exemption. Though the number might not be huge, he said, when children have illnesses “that can be treated fairly easily ... that’s frustrating when you see a kid die from that.”

Linda Martin, whose family has been in the Followers of Christ church for generations and who has relatives in church leadership, grew up attending their church in Meridian. The church believes in only anointing with oil and prayer, and that using other treatments is a sign of lack of trust in God, she said.

Martin left the church at 16 but stayed in Idaho and stayed in touch with relatives who were still in the church until she moved to Oregon in 1999. She went public with her story in late 2013 and has made trips back to Boise since then to lobby for changes to Idaho’s law — so far without success.

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