Given the media attention surrounding “faith healing” child deaths in Idaho, legislators are probably thinking about whether they should change the state’s laws that currently fail to protect children in certain faith communities from medical neglect. Some have said it’s wrong to prosecute parents who neglect their children’s health for religious reasons.

But before lawmakers go too far down that road, I suggest they give thought to a baby named David Hickman.

David was born two months prematurely on September 26, 2009. His parents were members of the Followers of Christ who don’t believe in medical care. So when it was clear that David was going to come well before the due date, his parents didn’t go to a hospital. Instead, they continued with their original plan to have a home birth with no medical professionals present.

David's mother, Shannon Hickman, at her trial
Shannon Hickman, David’s mother at her trial

After David’s tiny body emerged, he seemed okay at first, despite the fact that he weighed only 3 pounds, 7 ounces. But soon after that, the color and muscle tone began leaving his face. His body turned blue. Then gray. Still, his parents only prayed and anointed him with oil. Nine hours after delivery, David died. Medical experts later determined he would have had a 99 percent chance of survival had he been provided medical care. Without medical care, his chances were “zero,” according to court documents.

David was born in the state of Oregon which, years before, had repealed several religious exemptions allowing parents to withhold medical care on religious grounds. In 2011, two years after David was born, the state completely repealed all of its religious exemptions. As such, all faith-healing-believing parents today who neglect their children’s health receive no more legal privileges than other parents who neglect their health when religion is not a factor. When David died, prosecutors were able to prosecute his parents for second-degree manslaughter, and the Hickmans were sentenced to six years in prison.

Alayna Wyland, toddler born into the Followers of Christ in Oregon whose parents were required to get medical treatment for a dangerous hemangioma

Unfair Treatment?

Some legislators in Idaho have said it’s unfair to punish parents who have “lost” children in this way, since they didn’t mean to harm them and did appear to love their children. But while some feel uncomfortable with the idea of faith-healing-believing parents being led off in handcuffs, that fear is probably unfounded. Why? Because they most likely won’t break the law by neglecting their children’s healthcare in the first place.

It gets back to why the case of David Hickman is so important: Since Oregon fully repealed its religious exemptions, not one child in the Followers of Christ has died from medical neglect. Two likely reasons are that these pious individuals believe in abiding by the law of the land, even if they don’t agree with it. Plus, then Attorney General John Foote sent a letter to every Followers of Christ household, letting them know that if they denied their children necessary medical care, they would be prosecuted.

And so David Hickman was the last child to die of religious medical neglect in the Followers of Christ in Oregon. And as such, no parent in that group has gone to prison for refusing to provide their children necessary medical care under the new law. Think about it. That’s a total of 7 years with no child dying needlessly in that community. Compare that to Idaho in which an estimated 12 children have died from religious medical neglect since 2011.

Not all children were spared

It should be said that, even though no children in the Followers of Christ died in Oregon after 2009, two children who were part of another faith-healing sect, the General Assembly of the Church of the First Born, did die. The second case was that of 12-year-old Syble Rossiter who died from untreated diabetes in 2013. Experts who track these cases say no children have died from religious medical neglect in Oregon since then.

It’s uncertain just why First Born members continued to neglect their children’s health even after it became illegal. One explanation might be that John Foote didn’t reach out to them as he did with the Followers. (In my view, this highlights the need for Idaho officials to stay positively engaged with the Followers and ensure them that an effort to change the laws is not meant to interfere with their religious practices but to allow children to live healthy lives and spend more time with their loves ones.)

It’s hard to imagine that the legislators of Idaho only care about the rights of adults in faith-healing-believing groups. I would like to think that they could see that they could easily prevent unnecessary suffering, prolonged illness, disability, and death by passing a bill that addressed this issue.

My hope is that lawmakers of Idaho think about the David HIckmans of their state and realize that the biggest win of all to changing the laws would be that all children in Idaho would have a chance at life.

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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.

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