BOISE — The children were coughing, gagging, vomiting, seizing, struggling to breathe and turning red.
Multiple people knew they were ill. Multiple people watched them in their final hours of life.
No one called for a doctor, and they died of infection, pneumonia, seizures, heart defects and other problems, according to coroner’s reports and law enforcement documents.
And they died while their parents avoided seeking medical care because they practice faith healing.
In the past five years, according to the reports, 11 Canyon County children died (including stillborn deaths) while no effort was made to get medical help. Instead, the parents prayed.
In that same time frame, Ada County — which has a population more than double that of Canyon County’s — had no children die as a result of faith healing.
Owyhee County, an area that’s home to not quite 12,000 people, saw two faith healing-related deaths in the past five years.
The Idaho Statesman requested coroner’s reports from Canyon, Owyhee and Ada counties for all juveniles who died of natural causes and had unattended deaths, meaning they were not in the care of a physician.
A “natural” cause of death on a coroner’s report means the death was not an accident, a homicide or a suicide. “Natural” does not mean the death was unavoidable.
Cases involving the deaths of children and infants were outlined in the county documents — and some of the deaths might have been prevented had parents sought medical help.
HOW’D THEY DIE? REPORTS SPELL IT OUT
The reports from coroners paint a picture of some of the children suffering and dying in situations in which medical care could make a difference.
A child in Canyon County had been experiencing multiple seizures a day in the months leading up to his death. Seizures are generally a controllable disorder if medical assistance is sought. The boy was about 1 year old when he had his first seizure and was 3 years old when he died of a final seizure.
Excerpts from the Canyon County Coroner’s Report describe the death of a child who was suffering from seizures.
An infant in Owyhee County died of sepsis because of infection at just 3 days old. He had not received any treatment for the infection and was having seizures in the hours before his death. Sepsis can result from an infection anywhere in the body, and it can kill quickly, according to the Sepsis Alliance. But it also can be fought with antibiotics and IV fluids.
A 3-month-old girl in Canyon County was born with a cleft palate that went untreated, as well as an undetected heart defect. The infant never received medical care and died.
A Canyon County newborn died of pneumonia after catching a cold from his older sister. He was 12 days old and received no treatment. Antibiotics can be successful treating pneumonia caused by bacteria. If it is caused by a virus, other treatment options are available.
Other children in the reports died just days after their birth, and some were stillborn. Their mothers received no prenatal care, according to coroner’s reports.
WHY IS FAITH HEALING LEGAL?
In Idaho, there is an exemption under the injury to child criminal statute that allows parents and guardians to decline to seek medical treatment for ill children if they say it is against their religious beliefs.
The law states that a guardian who “chooses for his child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to have violated the duty of care to such child.” That means the guardian may allow an ill child to live without medical treatment, and potentially die, without being criminally charged.
Lawmakers have discussed whether to remove the exemption from Idaho law in recent years, but no headway has been made.
Members of Followers of Christ, a small Christian faith most prominent in Canyon County, have repeatedly told lawmakers they believe pharmaceuticals are the product of Satan, and if they give their child such products, the child will not be able to find eternity in the afterlife. Seeking any medical assistance would be contrary to their religious beliefs, they say.
The Idaho Statesman made efforts to contact some members of the faith over the phone, but they either declined an interview or didn’t respond to messages.
The Owyhee County coroner, Aaron Tines, and the Canyon County coroner, Jennifer Crawford, told the Statesman that removing the exemption is a decision for lawmakers.
“My personal opinion has no bearing,” Crawford said in an emailed response to the Statesman. “All child death cases are investigated consistently. It is my duty to serve the residents of Canyon County and to treat every death investigation the same and without bias. It does not matter where they live, who they are, or what their religious beliefs may be.”
Tines told the Statesman his office has not taken a stance on the faith healing exemption.
“Obviously there are different religions and different beliefs, but it’s our job to serve the citizens of our county,” Tines said. “I try to keep my personal beliefs out of their belief system. I have to be impartial no matter what. With those types of feelings, or opinions, I tend not to comment on those.”
Tines said he has tried to form good relationships with members and elders in the Followers of Christ.
LAW ENFORCEMENT FEELS ‘HELPLESS’
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue has voiced his opinion to lawmakers, urging them to remove the exemption for faith healing. Donahue told the Statesman that it’s not acceptable that legislators claim it’s a “religious freedom issue.”
His opinion of legislators who won’t take a firm stance on the topic is this:
“What you’ve done is because of your inaction, because of your hesitance to get into the topic and see it for what it is, you’re allowing these children to go through tremendous anguish, up to death, over a period of days,” Donahue said.
As a detective, Donahue said he has responded to calls about faith healers having children who are gravely ill. He called it “incredibly frustrating” when he knows a child is in imminent danger and he cannot remove the child from the home or help the child.
“(Deputies) feel helpless, and that’s the last thing law enforcement wants to feel,” Donahue said.
Donahue said his frustration stems from the length of time that lawmakers have known about the problem, especially in his county, and failed to act. He said using an “excuse” that the subject is too complicated, or claiming that the problem can’t be solved, is “weak.”
“You can take the damn blinders off, grow a spine and do something,” Donahue said. “Grow a backbone and get in the damn fight, or get out of the way. If it’s too tough, don’t be there.”
The Statesman requested copies of deputies’ reports stemming from some of the unattended death calls that the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office responded to. What was notable in the reports was how the bodies of the children had often been bathed and redressed before a coroner or deputy was called. In most circumstances, that would be considered tampering with evidence at the scene of a death.
One deputy who responded to the death of a 3-month-old in February 2019 in Nampa wrote in a report, “When I arrived on scene the house was full with numerous family members in the living room and kitchen area.” The deputy then wrote, “Once (the child) passed away she was cleaned up and placed into clean clothing and then placed in the bedroom.”
PROSECUTION AND LEGISLATION
Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Taylor issued a brief statement when asked about the faith healing exemption.
“The CCPA’s Office hasn’t taken a position as we prosecute cases as the laws are written by the Legislature,” he said via email through the county spokesman.
Taylor said his office has supported the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association and the Idaho Attorney General’s Office as those organizations have worked to address “the concerns that have been raised” with legislation involving faith healing. During previous legislative sessions, the prosecutors association has publicly supported bills that would remove the exemption for faith healing.
Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, has said that he plans to bring legislation regarding the exemption again this year. But no date has been set for when a bill might be introduced, and the draft of a bill is not public record until it’s brought before a committee.
Gannon told the Statesman that he continues to pitch legislation on the subject because it is a problem that’s not going away. He said the Followers of Christ are not the only faith in the state to decline medical intervention.
When asked about whether the bill infringes on parental rights, Gannon argued that the government already does that in certain aspects. The state requires parents to educate their children and it requires drivers to have training.
“Parental rights have limits,” he said.
Because the language of a 2020 bill hasn’t been made public, IPAA President Grant Loebs told the Statesman Jan. 29 that the association could not take a stance on whether it would support a new bill removing the exemption.
Felony injury to child, the law in question, is under normal circumstances punishable by up to 10 years in prison.