Child Deaths Bring Urgency to Debate Over Faith Healers

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Source: Magic Valley

BOISE • 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 hea 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 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 where a child is seriously injured or dies, but he couldn’t get a hearing on it. Gannon plans to keep working on it this session, pointing to the 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 where children died in families where the parents did not seek medical help because of 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 in cases where “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 where 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.”

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1 reply

  1. This sounds like and is no different from the traditional healers (witch doctors), of the developing world. So many die here too, in the process, unfortunately. Usually, the availability of medicines, doctors, etc., and education improves matters in this case.

    One wonders what can work other than law enforcement, in a situation where, the education is there, yet, death occurs…

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