When a child dies, faith is no defense
Why do courts give believers a pass?
"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. Faithful neglect has not been used as a criminal defense, but the claim 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 Hodgkins 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.