Story behind the story: Fallen Followers

Story behind the story: Fallen Followers
Looking inside the sanctuary in Boise.

Dan Tilkin’s story “Fallen Followers” aired Thursday night. Watch KATU tonight at 6 p.m., when an Idaho lawmaker responds to the story.

When Dan Tilkin made plans to go to Idaho, he knew he’d have the awful job of looking at children’s gravestones.

He just didn’t know there’d be so many.

Tilkin has been covering the Followers of Christ faith-healers for more than a decade. So, when he made the trip to Pleasant Valley Cemetery near Caldwell, he thought he knew what to expect. He had, after all, gone to find two graves that a former member of the church had tipped him to.

“We started looking around and it was – here’s another dead kid, and another one, and I actually had to go back and start looking again,” he said. “I had to go back and systematically go from grave to grave to grave. I thought we’d be there an hour, and it ended up being more like three hours. And then we ended up going back the next day.”

In all, Tilkin found 10 children’s graves that had appeared since our last visit in 2011.

He keeps in touch with several former members of the church, so he quickly realized that if he didn’t know all those children had died, it was quite likely no one outside the church knew.

“It’s the most important story I’ve done (in 20 years as a reporter),” he said. “Sharing for the first time the sheer number of children that are still dying – not only have died, but are continuing to die.

“I think people believe this is a thing of the past, but this is happening right now.”

Tilkin began breaking significant ground on the Followers of Christ Church when a former church member tipped him off in 2008, when 5-year-old Ava Worthington of Oregon City died. Her father, Carl Worthington, was later found guilty of criminal mistreatment.

That’s when former church members began telling Tilkin more – and that was the only good way to probe this story.

“It’s a closed society, so you can’t just go on a website to get their history,” he said.

As the years went on and the deaths piled up, the story grew personal.

“As a trained journalist, you’re supposed to be objective and give both sides, but the Followers won’t talk to us for the most part, and when they do, they won’t explain themselves,” Tilkin said. “I’ve tried and tried and tried, but none of them will tell us where they’re coming from.

“What really gets to me is the hypocrisy. You’ve got the adults wearing glasses, hearing aids, some of them get dentistry …it really bothers me that nobody will stand up for dying kids.”

Part of the problem is that few people know the scope of the problem because it is a closed society. Though many members are part of mainstream society for the most part, the church is a closed group – you have to be born into it.

Tilkin said he hopes the laws are rewritten in Idaho, but lawmakers have been slow to act. Tilkin said he’s been told that coroners, for example, don’t go out of their way to publicize the children’s deaths.

“It’s personal for me because it’s exasperating, not only that these children died, but that they sometimes die horrible deaths,” he said.

“How does a child die of pneumonia in this day and age? I’ve had doctors explain it, and it’s like drowning in your own fluids.”