BOISE — After several recent child deaths, an Idaho lawmaker wants to follow Oregon’s lead and require parents to seek medical help for kids suffering from potentially fatal conditions — even if their religion frowns on it.
Since 2009, numerous children of members of the Followers of Christ in Marsing have died of treatable causes, according to their autopsy reports. Many children are buried at a cemetery overlooking the Snake River that is favored by the church.
The church, with locations in Idaho, California and Oregon, relies on faith healing, not medicine, to help sick members.
Democratic Rep. John Gannon of Boise says Idaho’s existing faith-healing exemptions for injury-to-a-child crimes should be updated. He has support from Linda Martin, an Oregon woman who left the church in Idaho decades ago and has returned this week to champion the changes.
“These children need a chance to grow up,” Martin told The Associated Press Thursday.
According to an autopsy from June 2012, 15-year-old Arrian Jade Granden died after suffering from food poisoning. After three days of vomiting, her esophagus ruptured.
Preston John Bowers, who was 22 months old, died in March 2011 of pneumonia, according to his autopsy report. He had been suffering from a fever for days.
That same month, 14-year-old Rockwell Alexander Sevy died after a two-week illness. “As time went on, he began having more shortness of breath and the rattle in his chest got worse,” wrote Canyon County Coroner Vicki Degeus-Morris, concluding pneumonia.
Pamela Jade Eells, 16, died in November 2011, again of pneumonia, according to the Payette County coroner.
Pamela Eells’ mother, Michelle Eells of New Plymouth, said Thursday she remains a Follower of Christ member. She declined comment.
The other parents either didn’t return phone calls or couldn’t be reached for comment.
In Idaho, someone found guilty of felony injury to a child — causing conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death or permitting a child to be injured — can get a decade behind bars.
But the law has this exemption: “Treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to have violated the duty of care to such child.”
Gannon’s proposal would lift that exemption “whenever a child’s medical condition may cause death or permanent disability.”
“Medical treatment for physical harm to a child should supersede every other consideration,” Gannon said.
In 2011, Oregon legislators trimmed a faith-healing exemption, expanding a 1999 law that eliminated the defense from some charges, including manslaughter.
That change came as Followers of Christ members there were prosecuted and convicted following child deaths.
NAMPA’S CHRISTY PERRY WEIGHS IN ON ISSUE
In Idaho, Gannon wants to introduce his bill in the Legislature, but there’s already resistance.
Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, said she fears the bill tramples on religious freedoms and parental rights.
“This is about religious beliefs, the belief God is in charge of whether they live, and God is in charge of whether they die,” said Perry, whose district is not far from the Followers’ Idaho church. “This is about where they go for eternity.”
But Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee where Gannon’s bill could be introduced, said he is willing to consider updating faith-healing exemptions.
“I’m concerned any parent would put their religious beliefs ahead of child welfare,” Wills said. “It just stuns me.”
On Thursday, Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg recalled autopsies of numerous Followers’ children. In some instances, routine intervention — antibiotics here, an appendectomy there — could have saved them, he said.
He has also been to Followers’ homes and seen them cry over lost children. “These are great people,” Sonnenberg said. “They love their children.”
While he favors limits on the faith-healing shield to prevent abuse, Sonnenberg said he isn’t convinced somebody with beliefs so powerful they spurn medical care for their children would take heed.
“At times, you sit back and wonder, ‘Is my faith that strong?’ “ he said. “I understand the faith side of it. But it seems like at least let your kids grow up, when it comes down to it, and decide for themselves.”