Idaho lawmaker to follow Oregon's lead on tackling faith healing after child deaths

Idaho lawmaker to follow Oregon's lead on tackling faith healing after child deaths
There appear to be 144 marked graves at Peaceful Valley Cemetery for children who hadn't yet turned 18.

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - 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, Idaho, 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.

Gannon’s proposal follows extensive investigation by KATU’s On Your Side Investigators on the Followers of Christ church in Oregon. KATU visited the Peaceful Valley Cemetery in Idaho last November to trace the connections between church members in both states and found a new trail of dead children.

The On Your Side Investigators were advised by a former church member to look for two specific names but they found many more, adding up to at least 10 children who had died.
   
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.

Martin, who left the church when she was a teenager, contacted KATU last year when she realized more children were dying.

She said she is related to many of them.

She keeps their obituaries in an album.

“Everybody hears about the Oregon City trials and the Oregon City churches,” she told KATU last November. “What they don't understand is the Idaho churches are more rigid, they are unbending, and they are more ruthless then the Oregon churches are.

“It happens one at a time, and the church is so good at covering up that most people don't even know what's going on next door to them."
   
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.
   
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," Will 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."

Of the 553 marked graves at Peaceful Valley Cemetery, 144 appear to be children under 18. That’s more than 25 percent.

Those deaths happened primarily in three different counties, which are manned by three different coroners who aren’t bringing the information to the public.

Very few people had a good idea how many children were dying until now. Linda Martin started a Facebook page to keep track of them. That’s still probably not a complete reckoning.

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