nina koistinen
Nina Koistinen

By now you’ve probably heard about the case of Nina Koistinen. The 36-year-old mother from Phoenix has been charged with first-degree murder, after she confessed to suffocating her 6-day-old baby, Maya. Koistinen reportedly told authorities that she killed the child, because she “had too many kids already” and was jealous of the attention her husband was giving the baby.

At his wife’s initial court appearance, Bradley Koistinen explained that she suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression. “We have tried for years and years to manage it,” he said, noting that his wife of fifteen years “has been the greatest mother” who “has never hurt any of our kids.”

So, do we blame the murder on mental illness? What about Child Protective Services, who had visited Koistinen in the past? In interviews with social workers, Koistinen said she thought about smothering her children and wanted them to “go to heaven in a vehicle accident that appeared intentional.”

The truth is, there is much more to this tragic story. I oversee a closed Facebook group whose members are committed to raising awareness of, and eradicating, religious child maltreatment. As it turns out, a couple of our members know quite a bit about the Koistinens, because the members came from the same Laestadianistic church the couple belongs to.

I had never heard of Laestadianism, a conservative Lutheran revival movement that started around the 1850s in Nordic countries. Today, the church is estimated to have about 200,000 members worldwide. Some tenets of the fundamentalist branch of the Laestadianist faith—which the Koistinens’ church is a part of—have to do with raising large families. In fact, congregants are led to believe they will go to hell if they use birth control.

Maya was the Koistinens’ ninth child.

andrea yates
Andrea Yates

The case is a reminder of another devastating crime that took place in 2001. That was when Andrea Yates—a Houston housewife with a known history of mental illness—drowned all five of her young children. Yates and her husband were devout, conservative Christians who vowed on their wedding day not to use birth control and bear as many children “as God would provide.” Yates’ religious fears greatly propelled her to murder her children. While in prison, she told a psychiatrist that she had considered killing her children for two years out of intense fear and guilt.

“It was the seventh deadly sin. My children weren’t righteous. They stumbled because I was evil. The way I was raising them, they could never be saved. They were doomed to perish in the fires of hell,” she said.

Like the Andrea Yates and her husband, the Koistinens continued to have one child after the other, despite the mother’s deteriorating mental state. Why? If you listen to former members of the couple’s church, it seems likely that the church put subtle but influential pressure on the Koistinens to have as many children as they physically could.

“This tragedy was entirely preventable. Those of us with Laestadian backgrounds know why a mother with mental illness continues to have children, and why a father aware of his wife’s mental illness would not use birth control,” one unnamed, former Laestadian blogger writes.

The blogger includes in the post an audio clip of a sermon given in the church the Koistinens attended. At around minute 17, Pastor Eric Jurmu acknowledges that women who have many children can become “very tired.” But, he adds, the duties of raising many children are “all part of the life of a believing family,” and he intimates that mothers who question whether they can do what the church wants them to do are not pious enough. Furthermore, he appears to rebuke women who sneak birth control.

There are questions that come and doubts come as well that, how can I raise these children when it feels like there is so little time in the day? . . . . Even the enemy may raise doubts in our minds. And he may even then, during those busy times of life, come with this kind of sermon that you know there are ways that you can not have children, that there are ways that you control the number of children you have. There have been these kinds of occasions where the enemy has tempted some with practicing birth control. It is not according to God’s word, it is not according to the teaching of God’s kingdom.

Comments by former church members, written after a news report on the Koistinen case—a number of which have since been removed—reveal the trappings of an unhealthy, authoritarian community that poses harm to families, even those whose parents are not mentally ill.

“I too was raised in that wacky church!!  It IS a very scary place yet subtle in a strange sort of way. It is absolutely a CULT,” one person writes. “The ONLY way that church grows is mostly through the lack of birth control. They mostly get married in their teens and start-a-breeding. Then once the kids are born, the indoctrination begins !!!!”

Another individual remarks, “Families are not allowed to stop having children, even if you feel you have enough and cannot take care of them.” Someone else notes that children in the church are often taken care of by other children.

Another comment is written by a woman who was a member of the church for more than twenty years and knew Koistinen since she was a child. The writer explains that using birth control is considered to be a sin in the church. “Whether you like sex, don’t like sex, want kids, or don’t want kids, it’s just one of their beliefs. And they know if you are cheating and using birth control. If you don’t have kids, you would be suspect, absolutely,” she writes. The woman goes on to say that Koistinen “was a beautiful little girl,” but because of the fear-based teachings of the church, “This girl was trapped. I feel she was in a prison of her own, internally, and she basically couldn’t take it anymore, and she snapped like a twig.”

When a local television news station asked Jurmu about such accusations, he defended his teachings: “God created Nina with her mental illness. He gave her all the children she could bear. And if she couldn’t handle more kids, God would’ve closed her womb.”

The cases of Nina Koistinen, Andrea Yates, and others reveal important lessons. First, the mentally ill are particularly susceptible to fear tactics employed by religious authorities. Also, due to the perceived need to grow the flock, religious authoritarian cultures often pressure parents to have, and adopt, many children, while showing little regard for just how such teachings affect families.

We have to do a better job of taking care of the mentally ill, and we need to increase funding of Child Protective Services so that social workers can protect more children from abuse. But we also have to examine just what is going on in authoritarian faith communities that try to convince parents their eternal salvation depends on them giving birth to, and taking in, more children than they can handle.

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Janet Heimlich is an award-winning journalist and the author of "Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment," the first book to fully examine the issue of child abuse and neglect enabled by religious belief. In 2012, Janet founded the Child-Friendly Faith Project whose mission is to share knowledge and build community around the issue of religious child maltreatment (RCM) and advocate for and empower those whose lives are impacted by RCM. She also sits on the board of directors of Foundation Beyond Belief and co-hosts the podcast, "Parenting Beyond Belief." Prior to becoming a child advocate, Janet was a freelance reporter for National Public Radio, work for which she won numerous journalism awards; she has also written nonfiction articles for such publications as Texas Monthly and the Texas Observer.


  1. FGK
    December 18, 2019

    I’m interested how you think your way of thinking isn’t flawed. The decline of religion has been the primary decline of America since the 1970s. Atheism is the religion of the state, or whatever the state wants you to believe. This is just my opinion on that. “Authoritarian religions”, as you describe them, are more strict but allow a better outcome for the children. Every family and every person is going to have bad life decisions but religion shapes them in a way that I can see you cannot understand. The values that come from religion are instilled into them from a young age and are a permanent part of their life whether they leave the religion or not. You say this has bad effects on the children, but more often than not, it is better for the children compared to people without religion. There is a reason why religion has been around for such a long time. It’s because people need something that they can connect with and relate with each other. The religion
    Also creates rules, which further help the people grow, because without moral values, everyone dies eventually. I would like to see one successful atheist society, and once you come to the conclusion that there have never been any, I hope that you will be able understand my point.

    • December 18, 2019

      Hello, the blog post you commented on “More Than She Could Bear” talks about how certain religious teachings and organizations are unhealthy for children, mothers, and families. You seem to be promoting authoritarian religion, despite the fact that many studies have shown this not to be the case. (See link below.) You also make the false assumption that the blog post promotes atheism. Please take another read of the post so that we can be discussing the same topic. Thanks for your interest.

  2. KML
    July 22, 2013

    I am interested in reading your research. Has it been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal?

    • July 25, 2013

      Hello, KML,

      All my research is in my book, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment (Prometheus Books, 2011). The book has not been reviewed in a scientific journal.

      Thanks for your interest!


  3. birch
    June 25, 2013

    You should be ashamed for listening to the media. The former members of that church that came forward sound like they are all bitter. I know many people from that church and that is NOT how they believe. I respect their simple beliefs and as far as I know, only the bitter people came foward to speak about this church in such a horrible way. you cannot place blame on an entire religion as everyone has their own personal faith. Noone I have talked to felt any pressure in that religion. The ones that left maybe they did, but those who still attend that church do not feel that way. you should be ashamed to speak ill of anyone involved.

    • June 26, 2013


      Are you a member of this particular Laestadianistic church — the one that Nina Koistinen belonged to? I ask because you seem very keen on defending it. You criticize those who have come forward and spoken about problems they see in its teachings. You say that they “sound like they are all bitter” and that no one you have talked to has felt “pressure.” Let me explain something you may not be seeing: When a church conducts itself in an authoritarian way, it does not hurt everyone. Not everyone’s lives are ruined by such governance. Not every parents reacts to such pressure by harming a child. But that should not prevent us from looking at those who have been hurt, because the abuse they have experienced tells us a lot about what child-friendly faith does not look like. You say the church did not pressure anyone, and yet I read your words: Twice, you say, “You should be ashamed…” Is this how the pastor speaks to his congregants, telling them what they should feel and believe?


  4. JVA
    June 14, 2013

    So if it is true that the children were taken by CPS, and separated … into 8 different homes … I lose all faith in CPS. They lose all credibility. These poor children. First to have Baby Maya die. Then they lose their mother – which I understand. If she did, indeed, smother the baby, of course she must answer to the law. Maybe she did not smother it … we must pray that the truth will be uncovered. But then to take the kids out of the home and totally separate them?? Is there any brain at all in CPS? I have not seen (in news) any evidence at all that being in the home with the father and extended family, was detrimental to their well-being. It seems so obvious that after so much tragedy, being totally torn apart from the family has to be absolutely devastating!! May God put compassion into the heart of the courts and let the children be re-united with their father. I do not know the family, but the sad story has caught my heart-strings.

    • June 21, 2013

      Our apologies for our site taking so long to approve this post. We had approved it when it was posted but it apparently didn’t take. Thanks for your patience,

      The Child-Friendly Faith Project

    • shelley kane
      March 4, 2014

      I love that you blame CPS but have no solution. Are you willing or able to take 8 kids into your home? They have limited funds and not enough employees for the extensive amount of horrible parents that we have in this state. Until the laws change drastically for parents that abuse their children CPS will continue to be working beyond capacity. 1 year in prison for suffocating your child with your bare hands??? The fact that people like this can come together and make a baby over and over again makes me question my belief in God. The other thing that really bothers me is the dad in both cases just walks away free. He says that she was a great mother? He knew that she was suffering from mental illness and continued to have kids with her. I find it hard to believe that she had no other episodes with her children beyond this and for them to continue to have children is disgusting.

      • March 4, 2014

        Nowhere in my blog do I “blame” CPS. What I was trying to point out is that in maltreatment cases, there is almost never just one person or entity at fault. I have always been a big supporters of social workers who, as you point out, are often made to take on huge caseloads and paid little for it. But while we can look at many solutions, the main reason I started the nonprofit organization, the Child-Friendly Faith Project, was to attack these problems through education. We are partnering with faith communities to assist in their training and to help them question their own childrearing practices. Sometimes places of worship don’t properly scrutinize those teachings. In the case of this mother, there are many ideologies at work that led to this child’s death, in my view. Questioning those teachings is an important first step, even though this would take a lot of work in authoritarian groups such as the one she was a part of.

  5. KML
    June 1, 2013

    Correction re my prior submission: The caseworker didn’t speak Spanish. (I mistakenly wrote English)

  6. KML
    June 1, 2013

    When I saw the link “” i assumed it was a religious organization. Quite contrary. However, I must comment that generally speaking, the laestadian church is a VERY child friendly place where children are valued, loved and cared for. A faith/religion does not guarantee mental health stability for all it’s members. If it weren’t for modern medicine for treating psychoses, it’s possible Mrs. Koistinen may have never been married with children in the first place. There are many angles to analyze, argue, and disagree upon in these cases. It is unfortunate that focus on the Koistinen case is being so much about her church and not mental illness. There are countless sad cases of women with only one or two children murdering their children due to postpartum depression, mental illness, vindictiveness against an ‘ex’, drugs, or whatever else the case may be. Some parents can manage 12 kids wonderfully and some parents regardless of religion, or lack of, can barely handle one or two. And in this case, it isn’t even clear yet whether Mrs. Koistinen killed her child or if it was an accidental suffocation, for example, many babies have been suffocated when asleep in a bed, couch, or chair with a sleeping parent. According to news report: “Police said Bradley Koistinen found his daughter’s body in bed next to her mother around 6:45 a.m. April 8 and called 911.” I find it hard to believe that a mother would intentionally suffocate her child and then keep the body next to her, instead of in a crib, but I don’t know, I wasn’t a witness and anything is possible with mental illness. She reportedly was having a mental breakdown when she claimed to have killed her child weeks after the death, and it is unknown whether this was a true confession, or if it was concocted by the mental illness. News reports say autopsy found POSSIBLE signs of suffocation, and even that doesn’t indicate whether accidental or intentional. I say, stand by, and hopefully the truth in this case will come out. Reportedly the other 8 children have been removed by CPS (possible following a protocol of some sort) from where they were safe and being well cared for by extended family, into 8 separate foster homes, some of questionable environment, and one where a small child was placed where the foster parents don’t speak english, the caseworker didn’t speak english, and the child was inadvertently left for days without needed heart medication. This in itself is a tragedy upon the already existing tragedy.

    • June 2, 2013

      Hello, KML,

      Thanks for commenting. Very often, when I raise questions about the possible connection between certain faith doctrines and child maltreatment, I receive criticism by those who want to point out that their faith communities treat children well and that child maltreatment occurs in all communities. Both statements are certainly correct, however, it’s a mistake to allow those truths to blind us to the suffering of children in religious authoritarian cultures, such as conservative Laestadian churches. A telltale sign of an authoritarian community is religious leadership subtly or overtly telling parents how to raise their children, how many children to have, and getting involved in other personal matters that are simply not the leadership’s business. You can always find exceptions to things — such as the idea that “some parents can manage 12 kids wonderfully” — but my research tells me that children do not thrive adequately in churches that are governed in an authoritarian way. That does not mean that all children are abused or neglect — there are many factors that go into maltreatment, such as the personalities of the parents. However, they are at more risk for a specific form of abuse and neglect I call religious child maltreatment. I would imagine you would not see these same problems in less conservative Laestadian churches, and so I encourage congregants who care about the rights of children to find a Laestadian church that is led by more tolerant, compassionate leaders.


    • August 31, 2013

      Dear KML,

      you wrote: “It is unfortunate that focus on the Koistinen case is being so much about her church and not mental illness.”

      It is understandable because one of the most important Laestadian doctrine is that contraception is a sin. Birth control is banned.

      This has caused that huge amount of Laestadian women suffer serious mental problems, from depression to extreme physical and mental exhaustion.

      Some of many information sources here:

      Stop the Victims of Laestadian Ban of Birth Control – NOW:

      Rebekka Naatus, a journalist: Laestadian Women Resist Big Family Pressure and Criticize the Ban on Contraception:

      Dr. Ed Suominen: maternal Martyrdom

      Discurrion in media in Finland: Laestadian Banning of Contraception Leads a Man to Plight

  7. Veronica
    May 11, 2013

    First, I’d like to make a comment about your response to Kimsland comment: I understand your desire to not post anything hateful or malicious. I therefore agree with your decision to approve that comment. While I admit that is not phrased in the most polite way possible, all I get out that statement is that they are questioning your position and stating their opinion. There is certainly no malice, as malicious means ‘with conscious intent to cause harm.’ And while calling someone a potential laughing stock may not be nice, is definitely not hateful. One could actually interrupt their statement as a warning out of concern for your reputation.

    Which less me to my actual point: I was raised in a religious household. I spent over 20 years as an active church member. I am now an atheist. I often see people from my old church (it’s a small town) and they, more commonly than not, feel the need to try to “being me back to the light”. My response to this has become to simply start questioning their logic and thought processes behind their religious beliefs. They never seen to able to answer my questions and instead, think for some silly reason that maybe I just haven’t heard enough about god. When I point out that I know what the bible says, I’m asking if you see it as logical or reasonable, and if so, why? This almost always ends up angering them. I put them through a series of thought experiments that ends up proving their logic is flawed and they get mad at me, as if it’s my fault their beliefs don’t make sense to them! They don’t make sense to me either! Why do religious people get so mad when you question their beliefs? And why do they always insist that your the angry- or hateful or malicious- one simply because you ask the question in the first place?

    Let’s say I tell you that I know for a fact that hippos can fly. You say, okay let’s see some evidence. That’s reasonable. Now my evidence is a book written thousands of years ago by no definitive author, with no references and a questionable history that also detailed outlandish things like talking snakes and raising the dead, wouldn’t you naturally question my evidence? And if you did, and then in response, I not only got angry myself, but also accused you of being angry yourself, wouldn’t you just sorta think I was nuts? Why doesn’t the same logic that applies to something as silly as flying hippos, apply to life’s biggest questions. I have never gotten a good answer for that (not could I think o if one myself, hence-atheist). Whether or not god exists is not my point here. My point is, how is this line of thinking reasonable at all? This is what I encounter all the time, and I even was there myself at one point so I kinda get it….kinda.

    I firmly believed, into my 20’s, that the earth is only 6000 years old, as does half the country according to 2006 poll. I wasn’t raised in a cult, but this is a perfect first hand example of how religious upbringing is damaging to children. It makes them believe things that have been simply proven to be wrong. If and when they realize they were lied to their whole lives, intentionally or not, believe me, it can be traumatic. I wrestled with these things for years before realizing I was an atheist, and then coming to terms with that took even more years. It caused me so much mental and emotional anguish. Only the death of my mother has caused more.

    In conclusion, I think what you’re trying to do here is great, but I agree with kimsland’s opinion: Religion ultimately does more harm in this world than good, therefore it’s not positive (I realize how highly subjective that statement is, that’s why I used the word opinion). Therefore, promoting positive religious and spiritual programs, is an oxymoron. It’s like promoting positive raping and murdering programs.

    And if those psychological studios you’d like to see take place ever do, sign me up as a guinea pig! I’m the perfect test subject for that!

    • May 11, 2013


      I appreciate you writing and telling your story. There is no question in my mind that you were a victim of religious emotional abuse as a child. Specifically, a form called exploiting. Exploiting happens when an adult tries to live his or her desire through a child. In my book, Breaking Their Will, I talk a great deal about religious psychological abuse. I believe that religious exploiting happens all the time, and most people do not recognize it because they are used to religious belief being part of the fabric of their existence. However, what people fail to pay attention to is how beliefs are imparted on young people. For example, an important question for discussion is whether it is ethical for an adult to tell a child something as fact when it is only his or her belief. Speaking as a mother, when I tell my child something I know has never been empirically proven, I make it clear what I am telling her is my belief, not fact. Furthermore, I respect her right to discover for herself her own beliefs about the world, so I don’t bombard her with my beliefs.

      I understand your desire for religious belief to go away. My research shows that religious belief can be a risk factor for abuse and neglect. I have written about too many cases in which a child has died, partly due to the ideological beliefs of the perpetrator(s). However, child maltreatment has many other risk factors, such as poverty and drug addiction. I don’t think we will end up protecting children by simply trying to end religion, poverty, etc. Still, we can change how adults communicate their beliefs to their children and involve them in rituals, as well as how they perceive children. The root of religious exploitation is a denial that children are worthy of intellectual autonomy. Rather, pious adults who push their beliefs on children think they know what is best for a child — in fact, they are often convinced they are helping a child, perhaps saving them from eternal damnation.

      What’s missing here is an appreciation for what constitutes healthy, child development. I don’t expect a religious fundamentalist who exploits a child to learn about child psychology, but I do think child advocates such as myself and others I work with can make a difference, by getting people to think about how they communicate their beliefs to their children (or if they should at all) and how they involve children in rituals. In an effort to keep this conversation going, I would like to invite you to join my closed Facebook group, although I also welcome additional comments here. There are many members in the group who were raised in similar circumstances as you. I’m sure they would like to hear your thoughts.

      Best regards,
      Janet Heimlich

      • kimsland
        May 26, 2013

        Janet, you said:

        “Speaking as a mother, when I tell my child something I know has never been empirically proven, I make it clear what I am telling her is my belief, not fact. Furthermore, I respect her right to discover for herself her own beliefs about the world”

        Never empirically proven? Not fact?

        I am VERY concerned for children, if parents are not truthful to their children. Its one thing to say Santa Claus is real, and quite another to ‘allow’ a child to ‘believe’ (feel) that god (or jesus, or Allah, or any other of the hundreds of supernatural gods) exist.

        You are suggesting that there is a choice. (Um, where’s the smiley face that shakes his head with NO).
        ‘Facts’ are scientific terms. You could say that there is not enough facts on monsters in the cupboard PLEASE WARN YOUR CHILD of this!!!
        Common sense and reason informs us that the entire universe and everything in it is natural. There is NO hell, NO heaven, and especially NO god!

        Please think about this. People have lived on Earth for about 200K years (obviously evolved from apes). BEFORE that the entire world has been around (including with life) for BILLIONS of years! Plus the entire universe itself is 13.81 Billion years old. Do you honestly feel that a supernatural god waited 13.79 BILLION years to then give people (ONLY) souls? This is absolutely ludicrous and NOT a choice.

        Religion (belief; Creationist, theist, whatever) is WRONG.
        It can not only cause discrimination, death and destruction it actually promotes it.

        There is NO choice. Just as clear as gravity is a FACT (‘fact’ for us mere normal everyday people, Not scientists or priests!!) So is it FACT that NO god exists (nor people souls Lol. By the way, where are all the dinosaur ghosts or tree ghosts??)

        When my child asks: Is god real?
        I immediately say: NO (because I care for them)

        The fact that you ask for proof (proof that god DOESN’T exist) is illogical. Belief is a FEELING that people should overcome (if infected) as it is a lie and can and DOES cause damage. Proven every single day on the news!

        Atheists who ‘allow’ their child to choose, or possibly study all the info on belief (ie none) over 20 years or longer, to then decide on agnosticism or some other misguided confusion are WRONG. Tell your children the truth straight away. The idea that god exists, or that this supernatural made man (lol lol) in his own image is ridiculous. Or as Richard Dawkins would say, deluded.

        By the way, thanks for allowing my comment of which WILL be a world view one day (not that its a popularity contest, its just the truth).

        Not proven. Lol.
        I have no idea why educated people still believe in fairytales and myth.
        By the way, I’d love an email response if any replies. Ironically I only found your reply to me on a Google search. I had no idea there were any replies.

  8. kimsland
    May 10, 2013

    That ‘closed’ Facebook group that YOU oversee has these words on their main page:

    “while promoting positive religious and spiritual programs for society’s youngest members”


    Yer good luck with that.
    By the way, you DO realize religious belief is just a bunch of human myths?
    I mean you are just not that ridiculous to promote ‘religious and spiritual programs’ I hope?
    Because you’d be a laughing stock, plus perfectly in line with ALL religion as a hypocritical contradictory fool.

    Oh, and I TELL my children (actually any and ALL children I meet, that God is NOT real. Only because I care.
    Good luck with your spiritual religious stoopy head stuff :D

    • May 10, 2013


      I hesitated before approving your comment, because I have vowed not to allow comments that are malicious or hateful. But I then decided to allow it, because it reflects a common feeling among those who don’t have supernatural beliefs – that any discussion between believing parents about their supernatural beliefs and their children is unethical.

      I have read studies that look at whether it is beneficial or harmful to raise children in faith. The bottom line is, psychology has done a poor job at giving us answers. There are studies that support raising children in religion. However, they are usually conducted by religious organizations, which leads to questions about their impartiality. Sociology has barely touched on the subject, often leaning toward the assumption that religious belief is only a positive element in a child’s life. Meanwhile, cult research has come up with all kinds of evidence that raising children in authoritarian environments is detrimental.

      I urge psychologists and others to look more closely at just how faith affects families, for the good and bad. Secondly, I think it’s important for religious and spiritual parents to take time to think about how involving their children in their faith might affect their children before making the assumption that, while the adults feel good about their beliefs, their kids will too. Thirdly, there are many different ways to teach children about one’s faith. I know some parents who use indoctrination and others who don’t even discuss their beliefs with their children.


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