Judge says DHS statements don't exonerate faith-healing parents

The Clackamas Review, Oregon/December 16, 2009

A Clackamas Circuit Court judge said a statement from the state Human Services Department that 16-year-old Neil Beagley could choose not to seek medical treatment did not exonerate the teenager's parents from their duty to provide medical care.

Jeffrey and Marci Beagley face a trial in January on criminally negligent homicide charges in the June 2008 death of their son Neil.

The Beagleys are the grandparents of 15-month-old Ava Worthington, who died in March 2008 from a blood infection after faith healing attempts by her family. They are members of the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City, which rejects treatment by doctors in favor of faith healing.

Jeffrey Lewis, of the state Department of Human Services, took the stand in a motion hearing on Tuesday and told of two meetings he had with the Beagleys in the March and April before Neil's death. The calls were initiated after an anonymous caller told DHS that Neil and his younger sister Kathryn had significant health problems.

Prior to the second meeting, Lewis' supervisor told him to ask Neil "if he wanted to go to a doctor since he was of age to legally refuse medical treatment," according to court documents. Lewis testified that at the second meeting with Neil, on April 2, he asked Neil, who said he didn't want to see a doctor.

Deputy District Attorney Greg Horner argued that didn't constitute informed consent because Neil was never advised about what medical care would entail and the potential risks of either seeking or declining it.

Defense attorney Wayne Mackeson said the state couldn't force people to seek treatment or knowledge.

"It's a decision over your own body and it's not limited to treatment," he said. "The idea that you can force someone to go to a doctor so you can make them aware of all the things you think they should know is ludicrous."

Judge Steven Maurer, though, said a constitutional right of someone 15 years or older to seek medical treatment in no way grants that person an ability to deny such care outright.

"You simply have a fundamentally different situation," he said. In seeking medical care, "you have to have a medical provider in the first instance ... who is in a position to be advancing the idea that this medical procedure should take place ... It's completely contrary of a person rejecting medical treatment.

"If we accept that they don't even have to be informed ... that makes even more dramatic the manner in which the state really is completely abdicating its responsibility to that child by saying, ‘it's completely up to you.'"

Maurer said the way the state juvenile court acts in the role of the parent when the parent is unable or unwilling to do so " and Lewis' statements to the Beagleys that DHS had considered a court order to make Neil see a doctor " "belies the constitutional right of a minor to refuse medical treatment."

Maurer also dismissed a claim by defense attorney Steve Lindsey that Marci Beagley's statements on the night of Neil's death were not entirely voluntary.

"The circumstances described by the responding detective " that there were several officers ... they're still in the same home where her son has just passed away and that has some bearing because his body is just down the hall ... an he's posing speculative, hypotheticals going in a lot of different directions " he says it's a professional atmosphere, my position is it's anything but when (her son's body is still in the house)," Lindsey said.

Maurer said the argument was more to do with the relevance or prejudicial nature of the statements, which could be argued at trial, and not one of voluntariness.

"The likelihood of a finding of involuntariness for statements made while a person is clearly not in custody, in their own family's home, surrounded by supporters, as described here with the detectives all in plain clothes, no display of weapons, offering condolences ... I think we all know that the likelihood of there being a finding of a lack of voluntariness with that kind of backdrop is pretty remote," Maurer said. "The presence there of the body - no doubt the whole situation and setting is upsetting or Mrs. Beagley, but there's no evidence to support the suggestion that that had some role in overcoming her free will and compelled her in some way and police exploited that situation in a manner in which Mrs. Beagley felt that she was compelled."

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