Faith healing: Finally, Oregon looks and sees the emergency

The Oregonian/May 15, 2011

Finally, Oregon sees the headstones. The death reports. The photos of children disfigured or killed from lack of medical care.

Finally, Oregon will change its status as the nation's most lenient state for parents who let their children suffer in the name of religion.

It took decades to get here.

It will take minutes to vote on legislation that will declare an emergency and mandate immediate change.

"After 50 years, we have an emergency bill," says child advocate Rita Swan, a little wryly. She temporarily moved from Iowa to Oregon this year to lobby for reform. Though she's pleased the national tides have turned against faith-based child abuse, she mourns the children lost along the way -- including her own.

The Oregon Legislature appears poised this week to approve House Bill 2721, which would force the state to stop granting extra legal privileges to parents with certain religious beliefs. Parents who let their children die of medical neglect would no longer automatically receive special treatment and lighter sentences by using religion as a defense.

Oregon would no longer maintain a two-track legal system, one designed to treat a type of child abuse as above the law.

"It's been happening for years," says bill sponsor Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, who is joined by Sen. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro, in leading the charge. "It gives one chills, and it's time to say, 'Enough.'"

Many states once granted immunity to parents who treat their sick children with prayer alone. Most states abandoned this approach after realizing they were enabling child abuse more than protecting religious freedom. Oregon remains one of the few states to automatically shield faith-healing parents from prosecution for homicide or first-degree manslaughter. Oregon also exempts faith-healing parents from mandatory sentences under Measure 11.

"Oregon's current laws," says Swan, "reward fanatacism and absolutism."

They also appear to violate basic equal protection laws: Though most parents in Oregon are required by law to meet the minimum standards of parenthood, a chosen few are not.

The consequences of this double standard stretch back decades.

Oregon is the longtime home of the Followers of Christ church, a sect based in Oregon City in which members believe in treating sickness with prayer and oil rather than medicine. Getting glasses or dental care is sometimes considered OK. Seeking medical help for yourself or your sick child is not. This helps explain the church's high child mortality rate, its long history of children dying from treatable conditions, the rows of kids' headstones in the church cemetery.

Mickey Lansing, executive director of the Oregon Commission on Children and Families, says she'd heard about the church long ago, when she was a student at West Linn High School. Even then, the church "was well-known for children not receiving medical care and, in some instances, dying because that did not occur," Lansing told lawmakers in recent public testimony.

She added, "In August of this year I will be attending my 50th class reunion for West Linn High School. Fifty years is a very long time for this to continue."

Since 2009, several parents in the Followers of Christ church have been prosecuted or sanctioned for failing to provide their children with medical care. One child was a 15-month-old girl who died of untreated pneumonia and an infection. Another was a teenage boy who slowly died of an untreated urinary blockage. Another child suffered a massive untreated growth that disfigured her face and compromised her vision.

These high-profile cases roused the Legislature from its slumber. They also inspired Swan, the national child advocate, to drive to Oregon and lobby for change.

Swan says her son died in 1977 after she and her husband, under the direction of their church, withheld necessary medical care. She still struggles to talk about this child whom they "loved without measure" and failed. Instead, she explains why a single legal standard is not just a moral imperative for Oregon, but also a clearer guideline for people in religious sects.

"It would relieve parents of the moral tension of violating laws of the church," she says. "It would clarify what society expects of them."

The Oregon House unanimously approved this faith-healing bill. The Senate is expected to approve it this week, after adding an "emergency clause" to speed its enactment. The sudden urgency, after so many decades of deference and inaction, is a strange and bittersweet relief.

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