Judge dismisses charges against grandfather in child-neglect case

Reading Eagle, Pennsylvania/December 18, 2017

By Stephanie Weaver

A pastor was cleared Monday of intentionally failing to report neglect before his 2-year-old granddaughter died of a treatable form of pneumonia last year.

Judge M. Theresa Johnson found there was insufficient evidence to prove the case against Rowland Foster, 72, during a pretrial hearing and dismissed his lone charge of failing to refer child abuse to authorities.

Foster appeared with defense attorney Christopher A. Ferro of York, but did not make any statements during the hearing. He was accompanied by a large group of supporters from the Faith Tabernacle religious sect.

Foster serves as the pastor of the Faith Tabernacle Harrisburg District in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County. The sect rejects medical care and instead believes exclusively in prayer and divine intervention for healing.

His case stemmed from the death of Ella Grace Foster on Nov. 8, 2016. After being tipped off by a funeral director, state police troopers responded to the girl’s Upper Tulpehocken Township home and found her dead on the sofa.

Authorities said the girl died of bacterial pneumonia that could have been treated if her parents sought proper medical intervention.

Her parents, Jonathan D. Foster, 35, and Grace A. Foster, 33, face charges of involuntary manslaughter and endangering children. They are scheduled to go to trial in March.

Prosecutors alleged Rowland Foster was a mandatory reporter under the child protective services law and failed to fulfill his legal duty. Foster had told authorities during the investigation that he was called to his son’s home to anoint and pray over the girl the night before she died.

District Attorney John T. Adams was not present for Monday’s hearing but has been closely involved in the case. Despite several prior cases of Faith Tabernacle parents charged with not seeking proper treatment when their children died of preventable illnesses, Foster was the first leader in the sect to face charges.

Adams said his understanding of Johnson’s ruling was that the judge found there was no evidence Foster observed any symptoms that would indicate the girl was being neglected by her parents. He said the judge reviewed the limited contact Foster had with the child prior to her death, and after comparing it with the autopsy report, cleared him of the offense.

Ferro, the defense attorney, could not be reached for comment after the hearing.

His argument Monday largely resembled the case he laid out during two previous preliminary hearings for Foster, saying Foster was not equipped to diagnose the girl’s condition and did not act maliciously, but instead, based on his beliefs, thought he was doing what was best for his granddaughter.

Adams’ office argued the girl’s symptoms during Foster’s visit clearly showed she was suffering and needed medical attention.

Dr. Neil A. Hoffman, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on Ella Grace Foster, previously testified the girl would have been in agony the day before her death, “fighting to breathe” and coughing uncontrollably. Hoffman also testified that her fatal infections would have almost certainly been cured with penicillin or a similar antibiotic.

Prosecutors could appeal Johnson’s ruling, but Adams said they need to review the decision and evidence before they decide if an appeal is appropriate.

The case has been challenging for prosecutors from the start.

They originally charged Foster in March, only to have the case dismissed at the district judge level during a preliminary hearing in April.

Prosecutors refiled the charges two weeks later and successfully had the case held for the Court of Common Pleas in June after a second preliminary hearing before a different district judge.

Adams stressed that this dismissal will not affect the prosecution of Jonathan and Grace Foster

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