'To see them die without any care... it's hard on us'

KATU News, Oregon/November 8, 2013

By Dan Tilkin

Boise, Idaho -- Faith healing is a controversial topic and in the Pacific Northwest, the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City has certainly had its share of headlines involving the deaths of their children.

Oregon has cracked down on faith healing, but in Idaho, where the church still has followers, there are still protections in place for parents who hold the beliefs. We took a trip to the state to visit the church's Peaceful Valley Cemetery near Boise. We discovered 144 children buried there and obtained the death records on the 12 most recent cases. Here are a few of the disturbing reports we found:

In the 22 hours that Oliver Samuel Shippy lived, his mother told the coroner he would "cry a little and then he would stop to catch his breath." His breathing became "more labored" and then he was gone. No one called for medical help.

Micah Taylor lived for four days. He died a month ago and the coroner's report is tough to read. It states the boy's scrotum was "swollen to about four times the natural size" and his belly was distended. The coroner blamed both conditions, and his death, on an intestinal blockage.

When newborn Memphis Lee Morris struggled to breathe, his mother took him to the kitchen and turned on the oven. She "held the child in the oven's doorway" trying to warm his body. She held him there for 15 minutes until there were "no more sounds from the child."

Many of the autopsies done on the children buried at the Followers of Christ cemetery were done by Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg's office.

"To see them die without any care, basically we all know they could be alive," he said. "It's hard on us."

Sonnenberg is fed up with Idaho's law that protects faith healing parents.

"A lot of people fight the government on that thing, saying 'let us make our own choice,' but yet children don't have that right," he said. "So it seems to me there should be some legislation to give them that protection."

The problem with Idaho's law is that the government can step in if, and only if, it knows a child is in medical danger. But former members say the Followers of Christ are a closed society and the deaths are kept secret.

"The only way people are going to understand what's going on is by people who have lived through this going public," said Linda Martin, who was once a member of the Followers of Christ Church.

"When you told me about the group and the situation, I had not heard about this at all,' said Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise.

Martin serves on Idaho's Health and Welfare Committee and he is disturbed by what we found at Peaceful Valley Cemetery. He promised us he will look at Idaho's law. But will Idaho follow Oregon's lead and make what these parents are doing a crime?

"I'm not ready to go there at this time," Martin said. "I understand what you're saying. I'm very, very concerned about a child. We're weighing the rights of the parents, the parents' religious beliefs, and I would hope they would not be in conflict."

In traveling across Idaho, we talked to a lot of people, many of whom did not want to judge the Followers of Christ. When we told a man who lives across the street from the cemetery what we were looking into, he replied "kids die every day." When we said "not this way," he said "that's your problem... not mine."

There is movement happening in Idaho, however. This year, the state launched a new child death review committee. Two doctors on that committee told us they will likely look at our findings.

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