From Rita Swan director of CHILD


Our organization, CHILD, works to stop child abuse and neglect related to religious beliefs, cultural tradition, or any belief system that causes parents to ignore the harm to the child.

We are frankly aghast at the huge number of Idaho Followers of Christ children dying because of their parents’ religious beliefs against medical care.  We urge you to work for repeal of Idaho laws that allow their suffering and death.


Idaho’s criminal code allows parents with religious objections to medical care to withhold even lifesaving medical care from children.  Idaho has a religious defense to involuntary manslaughter because Idaho’s involuntary manslaughter law requires the prosecutor to prove that an “unlawful act” has been perpetrated or attempted.  Ida. Code 18-4006 (2).  The only unlawful acts that could be charged in medical neglect are criminal injury to children and non-support, both of which have religious defenses.  See Ida. Code 18-1501(4) and 18-401(2).  Since an Idaho prosecutor cannot prove criminal injury or non-support when parents withhold lifesaving medical care on religious grounds, s/he also cannot prove manslaughter.


A religious defense to manslaughter or negligent homicide is highly unusual.  We believe no more than five states have such a law and at least two of them have ways to work around it.  Think of it this way:  if you were in a situation where you were helpless, would you want a law allowing a person to cause your death?


The only protection Idaho children in faith-healing sects have is Health and Welfare’s intervention provided for in the civil code.  But Health and Welfare can save the child from harm only if they get a timely report on a sick child.  And a child whose parents object to all or nearly all medical care will not be seen by a mandated reporter unless the child is in school and school is in session.  We’ve been told that many Followers of Christ are now home schooling their children.


Furthermore, Idaho’s civil code has a religious exemption from the definition of neglect at 16-1602(25)(a), which may discourage mandated reporters from reporting a sick child in a faith-healing sect even if they did learn of such a case.


In the attached case Idaho’s religious exemption law prevented child protection service intervention even when the state was aware that the child’s injuries were untreated.


Child mortality among the Idaho Followers of Christ appears to be extremely elevated.  We’ve been given a list of 177 children under the age of 18 who are buried in Peaceful Valley Cemetery, one of several used by the Idaho Followers of Christ.  There are a total of 553 graves in that cemetery.  


Of the 130 persons who died during the years 2002-2011 and are buried in Peaceful Valley, 40 are minor children or stillbirths.  30.7% of the deaths during that decade were minor children or stillbirths.  


Idaho Vital Statistics data show that during the years 2002-2011, 107,490 Idaho residents died.  During those same ten years 2403 Idaho children died before their 18th birthday and there were 1216 stillbirths for a total of 3619 deaths of minor children plus stillbirths.  Only 3.37% of total Idaho deaths during that decade were of minor children or stillbirths.


If we had a way to separate out disease-related mortality from accidental deaths, child mortality in the Followers of Christ would look even astronomically higher.  The leading cause of death among Idaho children older than one year is accidents.        


The deaths of Followers of Christ children in Idaho are not new.  We have written to Idaho officials and media occasionally about them as long ago as 1999, but have gotten no response.


In 1998 The Oregonian reported on deaths of children in the Idaho Followers of Christ.  Reporters pointed out that many of the coroner reports were so vague that cause of death could not be determined.


In 2011 KATU-TV in Portland had a powerful report on deaths of children in the Idaho Followers of Christ.  Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Taylor told KATU and CHILD that he cannot file charges in religion-based medical neglect cases because of Idaho’s religious defenses.  The Canyon County coroner, Vicki DeGeus-Morris, said she doesn’t even do autopsies when Followers of Christ children die because Idaho law requires autopsies only when a crime is suspected.


Oregon has just one congregation of the Followers of Christ.  Over 80 children are buried in the church’s cemetery.  For decades authorities were indifferent because of religious defenses the Christian Science church got enacted in Oregon.  With a lot of hard work by CHILD and Oregon organizations, we got all of Oregon’s religious exemptions repealed pertaining to medical care of sick children.  (The state still has religious exemptions to preventive and diagnostic measures.)  No Followers of Christ children have died of medical neglect in Oregon since September 27, 2009.


We’ve recently learned, however, that several members of the Oregon FOC moved to Idaho when Oregon started prosecuting them for deaths and injuries to their children and it does appear that deaths of Followers of Christ children in Idaho are increasing.  For example, since September 27, 2009, 14 children have been buried just in the Peaceful Valley Cemetery.  


The U.S. Supreme Court has given parents broad rights to care for their children free of state intervention.  However, neither the Supreme Court nor any other American court has held that First Amendment religious freedom rights include a right to abuse or neglect a child.  Nearly 70 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held, “The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or child to communicable disease, or the latter to ill health or death. . . .  Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves.  But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.”  Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944)


The state has a compelling, parens patriae interest in having children grow into adulthood.  The state must give parents a legal duty to provide their children with the necessities of life to effect that interest.

There are over a thousand religious denominations in this country, and we would have anarchy if everyone was allowed to act out his religious beliefs without limitation.  Some parents have beaten their children to death because of their interpretation of bible verses.  Some have caused permanent injury or death when they believed their children were demon-possessed.  Pennsylvania parents let a child starve to death because they believed their money had to go to a church.  The Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints church has married girls younger than ten to much older men in polygamous relationships.  


Idaho does not have laws allowing any of those abuses.  It should not have laws allowing medical neglect in the name of religion.  Medical neglect may not be as exotic or sensational as exorcism and polygamy, but it has been even more deadly to Idaho’s children.


Some history is relevant to how Idaho acquired its terrible laws allowing parents to deprive their children of medical care on religious grounds.  From 1975 to 1983 the federal administration required states to enact religious exemptions to child neglect as an eligibility requirement for federal funding.  Federal officials have admitted to us that the Christian Science church was the only party that asked for this incredible policy.  Idaho enacted its religious exemptions in the civil code at 16-1602(25)(a) and 16-1627(3) in 1976 and its religious defense to criminal injury of a child at 18-1501(4) in 1977 during this period when the federal government was coercing states to enact such laws.  Idaho 18-401(2) was enacted in 1972 before the federal policy was in effect.


We urge repeal of Idaho’s religious defenses to parental duties of care at Ida. Code 18-1501(4) and 18-401(2) and its religious exemptions in the civil code at 16-1602(25)(a) and 16-1627(3).  Idaho’s laws are among the worst in the nation, and hundreds of Idaho children have died due to their parents’ religious beliefs against medical care.

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