Dying for religion: 'They use fear - that's their main weapon'

KBOI News, Idaho/May 21, 2011

Caldwell, Idaho - Back in March, two very sick children from two different families in Canyon County died, likely from untreated pneumonia. We'll never know for sure, because they were never taken to the doctor.

For more than 99-percent of Idahoans, not getting medical care for a gravely sick child could be considered a crime. But for one group, it's perfectly legal. And some say it's time for it to stop.

"Too many little kids are dying over needless things that can be cured," says a man we're calling Jacob. He's a former member of the Followers of Christ Church, which has at least three branches here in the Treasure Valley, including one in Caldwell, another near Lake Lowell and one on Ten Mile in Meridian.

We've agreed to protect Jacob's identity because he still has active ties to the church, and is worried about the fallout of our investigation to current members.

"They use fear a lot, that's their main weapon," says Jacob. "It starts young. You start hearing about Hell and Lake of Fire real early."

The church believes in faith healing over medical intervention when it comes to treating their children. Jacob says even members of his own family have died from a lack of medical care.

"They really believe that praying and laying hands on is going to cure stuff," says Jacob.

Toddler Preston Bowers died March 24th at his Caldwell home. Vicki DeGeus-Morris, the Canyon County Coroner, says his parents described a rattle in the boy's chest, which eventually got worse, and a lack of energy. Preston would have turned two years old next week.

"I can't believe it's happening in this day and age, I really can't," says Jacob.

Rockwell Sevy also died at a home in Caldwell. His death occurred March 30th. The coroner believes he, like Preston, also died from untreated pneumonia. Rockwell was 14-years old.

Peaceful Valley Cemetery in Canyon County is one of the main cemeteries used by the Followers of Christ, and there's a high number of children buried in the cemetery.

DeGeus-Morris did not want to speculate on how many sick children might have been saved had their parents sought medical attention. She did say a high number of children buried in Peaceful Valley were the result of stillbirths.

"I'm sure there's a higher mortality rate because they do not seek medical attention for instances that could be reversed," said DeGues-Morris.

DeGues-Morris says she hasn't done an autopsy on a Followers of Christ child in years, because in Idaho it's not illegal for a parent or guardian to choose prayer over medicine as treatment for a sick child.

Idaho statute 18-1501 outlines the law that a parent who "chooses...treatment by prayer...shall not...have violated the duty of care to such child."

Canyon County Prosecutor Bryan Taylor says his hands are tied when it comes to punishing parents who choose faith healing over medicine, even to the very end.

"If they don't want to have their children go to a doctor, as long as they haven't caused the injuries, then we don't really have a leg to stand on in exploring criminal charges," says Taylor.

"I guess religious freedom means you can do almost anything you want. Especially if the people you're doing it to have no voice," says Jacob.

The Followers of Christ Church also has branches in Oregon, which is another state that grants lots of freedom when it comes to faith healing. But that could be changing.

Earlier this year, the Oregon House voted unanimously, 59-0, to remove legal protection for parents who decline medical intervention in the case of a sick child based on religious reasons. Discussion in the Oregon Senate started Thursday.

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