When faith and health collide

Experts to address concerns about faith-healing

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Emily Walton's sister was very sick as a child and did not receive the help she needed at the time.

It is because of that experience that Walton, a trustee for the College of Western Idaho, hopes to convince the Idaho Legislature to change a law that has been in place since 1977.

"My parents denied my sister healthcare," Walton said. "She was born with a hole in her heart, denied medical care. It damaged her lungs permanently."

She said her sister, Mariah, has lived most of her life with about 60 percent oxygen, which now requires her to get a lung transplant. Mariah, 20, lives with Walton and is receiving the healthcare she needs, but the lung transplant could have been avoided if she had been taken to a doctor as a child.

Idaho statute 18-1501 contains an exemption that protects practitioners of faith-healing and prevents criminal prosecution of parents who refuse to seek medical attention for their child for religious reasons.

The law generally gives someone found guilty of felony injury to a child a decade behind bars — with this exemption: "The practice of a parent or 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."

Idaho is one of six states that allow this religious exemption, which can provide a defense to manslaughter if the child dies from not receiving medical care.

In 2012, two cases were reported where children died of treatable conditions after being denied medical care, according to a report released in April 2015 by the Governor's Task Force on Children at Risk. The Idaho Child Fatality Review Team reported that one death was related to complications from Type 1 diabetes and the other from a prolonged gastrointestinal illness.

Walton was unsure of the particulars of the two cases but recalled a teenager who had died from food poisoning because she vomited until her esophagus ruptured and she eventually went into cardiac arrest. According to a Canyon County coroner's report from June 1, 2012, a 15-year-old girl named Arrian Granden died of "upper gastrointestinal hemorrhage" and she had "a several-day history of nausea and vomiting."

The task force report states: "The team determined that both of these deaths may have been prevented with proper and timely medical treatment. Idaho civil and criminal codes provide religious exemptions on child abuse and neglect which may prevent authorities from investigating and monitoring neglect cases and discourage reporting of these incidents."

Kirtlan Naylor, chairman of the task force, wrote a letter to Gov. Butch Otter in July that stated the findings and conclusions by the review team. In Canyon County, 40 graves in the Peaceful Valley Cemetery are children who died between 2002-2011. In the letter, Naylor wrote that if children died at the same rate as Idaho children statewide, there should be only four child graves during that decade, not 40.

"It is reported that the population in this area has a concentration of religious followers who subscribe to the belief that faith-healing should prevail over medical care," Naylor wrote. He goes on to say the First Amendment right to religious freedom "does not include the right to abuse or neglect children."

He concludes the letter by informing Otter that the task force is concerned for the well-being and protection of Idaho's children in circumstances where the children have no voice in medical decisions. He encourages Otter to consider amending the religious exemptions to "exclude them from application where a child's death or severe disability is imminent."

A panel and town hall discussion will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the Lincoln Auditorium at the Idaho Statehouse in Boise. The panel will feature experts in the fields of medicine, child advocacy and faith as well as survivors. Audience members will have the chance to ask questions and express their views on the Idaho law and faith-healing practices.

"Our position is that people just aren't aware that this is happening in Idaho and that it is legal," Walton said. "I grew up in a religious environment and 100 percent respect people's religious beliefs. I just think we can't rate a religious belief above a person's life."

She said the overall goal is to get a bill into the Legislature to change the statute, but the bill does not yet have a sponsor and she hopes the panel discussion at the capitol will bring awareness to the issue.

The panel discussion can be viewed live online at idahoptv.org/insession/leg.cfm.

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