Dr. Rita Swan
Dr. Rita Swan Speaking at a CFFP Conference

 

Anyone who follows the issue of religious child maltreatment—particularly cases in which children die from “faith healing”-related medical neglect—has heard of Dr. Rita Swan. I have had the honor of working with Rita and consider her a friend. Now this pioneer in child advocacy has announced she will retire at the end of this month.

 

Rita began fighting to protect the health, safety, and lives of children before few people had even heard of religiously “inspired” abuse and neglect. Tragically, Rita had experienced such problems firsthand. She and her husband Doug had been members of the Christian Science Church, an organization that has discouraged members from seeking medical care for themselves and their children. As she writes in her memoir, Rita and Doug, both having been indoctrinated in the Church’s teachings, allowed their young son Matthew to die from spinal meningitis in 1977.

Following Matthew’s death, Rita educated herself about the Church’s dangerous teachings and founded Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty in 1983. Its efforts have been focused on convincing state legislators to repeal religious exemptions that allow parents who harm their children through religious medical neglect to avoid prosecution. This was no small feat. In fact, there have been times when Rita and Doug temporarily moved to a state’s capitol to try to talk sense into lawmakers. As she wrote in her May 16 CHILD newsletter:

An ABC 20/20 producer told us thirty years ago that the religious exemptions would fall like a stack of dominos. That would have been nice, but even today a religious exemption almost never is repealed or even modified unless we yell and scream about it.

But even with the challenges, CHILD has made significant progress. Through Rita’s indefatigable efforts, five states have completely repealed their exemptions from medical care of sick children: Oregon, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Tennessee. Before CHILD’S involvement, 13 states had religious exemptions to homicide and manslaughter charges. Today, only 9 have such exemptions. The four states that repealed are Colorado, Oregon, Delaware, and Rhode Island.

For many years, Rita has served on the board of advisors of the Child-Friendly Faith Project. I have served as an honorary member of CHILD’s board of directors. Over the last two years, Rita and I have worked together to try to get Idaho to repeal its religious exemptions, but that state has proven to be a very tough nut to crack. “Idaho is the worst state in the country for the number of child faith-deaths (which continues to climb) and official indifference about the suffering of the children,” says Rita. Her July 2017 newsletter on this issue can be found here.

Rita is by no means giving up on the cause. She says she will continue working for statutory reform in Washington State, and she has joined the board of directors of CHILD USA, a nonprofit organization begun by University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Marci A. Hamilton. The CFFP congratulates Rita on her extraordinary career and wishes her the best as she embarks on new endeavors.

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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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