Photo by Robert Nicholas/Getty Images
When Oregon parents Wenona and Travis Rossiter were convicted of manslaughter this week in the diabetes-related death of their 12-year-old daughter Syble, it brought national attention, once again, to an age-old, controversial religious practice: faith healing, or the reliance on divine, rather than medical, intervention.
“I can’t purport to know what’s going on in their heads, but I think they are probably convinced they were doing what God wanted,” says Shawn Peters, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin Madison and author of “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law.” Faith-healing parents whose children have died are typically “very sincere” in their beliefs, Peters tells Yahoo Parenting, making for a “complex psychological, religious, legal, and sociological issue.”
The couple — members of the Church of the First Born, an offshoot of Mormonism that believes in faith healing — said they thought Syble had had the flu rather than the easily preventable diabetic ketoacidosis that killed her. They treated her with prayer instead of taking her to a doctor and were arrested in 2013 for withholding “necessary and adequate” medical care. The couple will be sentenced in December.
Wenona and Travis Rossiter. Photo by Linn County Sheriff’s Office.
Their late daughter is now one of 400-plus children who have died (officially on record, at least) since 1975 as a result of parents withholding medical care because of religious beliefs. That’s according to Rita Swan, who has been tracking the data along with her husband Douglas since the 1977 death of their infant son — a casualty of their own Christian Science–based faith-healing beliefs, which, she tells Yahoo Parenting, taught “denying and ignoring symptoms,” as they were the “perfect mirror image of God.” After nearly two weeks of praying over their 16-month old, the couple’s faith wavered and they brought him to the hospital, where a doctor explained that he had spinal meningitis. But it was too late to save him.
“We just left the church and never went back,” says Swan, 71, who went on to have and raise two daughters (now 36 and 45) and found the non-profit Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty (CHILD) in 1983. Its mission, she says, is “to stop child abuse or neglect related to religion or quackery.” Through it, she and her husband have successfully fought to have the religious-exemption laws to child abuse and neglect repealed in many states — laws that were enacted because of a 1974 federal requirement (since rescinded) put in place due to lobbying from the Christian Science church. “I always want to be doing more to prevent these tragedies,” Swan says. “I wish I could have done more [for my own son].”
But there are many complicated factors behind the psychology of a faith-healing devotee, she explains. “First of all, they do seek healing — they use prayer, and the laying on of hands. And we know the body can heal itself of many things, and there is such a thing as ‘power of the placebo.’ So they know they can effect bodily changes, but since they don’t get a medical diagnosis, they don’t know the medical reasons. But it is the way that God becomes real to them,” she says. With faith-healing Pentecostals, she adds, if a person dies, “they say, well, that was the will of God.” There is also often “a willful denial of symptoms,” and a belief, particularly among what are called Full Gospel, Word Faith, or Positive Confession adherents, that “the crucifixion redeems them of sin as well as sickness.” Others firmly disbelieve that disease is caused by biochemical factors to begin with, and that it’s just the devil tempting them. “Therefore,” Swan says, “they are not inclined to believe a doctor can cure disease.”
Currently, 38 states and Washington, D.C., still have religious exemptions from having to provide medical care to sick children; 17 states have religious defenses to felony crimes against children, while 15 have religious defenses to misdemeanors. The legal patchwork, notes Peters, represents a “balancing act between protecting religious beliefs and the health and welfare of children.” Religion, he says, has specific legal protections, but there have always been limits — polygamy, for example — and so “not complete license to do whatever you want.” So state laws protecting children are typically “vague, confusing, or nonexistent,” he explains, with as of yet no Supreme Court ruling to provide a clear line.
And although parents like the Rossiters are now “pretty consistently being convicted,” Peters says, the charges tend to skew to the less-severe — manslaughter, not murder — while sentencing is usually light because of what he sees as a lingering “ambivalence about how to punish” in these cases, especially given the country’s longstanding record of support of religious beliefs.
That was certainly the case with Dale and Leilani Neumann of Wisconsin, whose 11-year-old daughter Kara also died, in 2008, of diabetes complications. While they were convicted of second-degree reckless homicide — a ruling upheld in 2013 by the Wisconsin Supreme Court — they were sentenced to only 30 days of jail time each, not at the same time, over six years, at which point they would be placed on 10 year’s probation.
Herbert and Catherine Schaible. Photo by Philadelphia Police Department/AP Photo
Earlier this year, Herbert and Catherine Schaible of Pennsylvania were sentenced to just three to seven and a half years in prison after their 8-month-old son’s death from treatable pneumonia — which came, shockingly, four years after the death of another son, 2, also from pneumonia, and after a conviction of involuntary manslaughter coupled with a court order to get medical care for their eight other children (six of whom have now entered the foster-care system). The judge told the Schaibles, who are devout followers of the Pentecostal First Century Gospel Church, “You’ve killed two of your children… Not God. Not your church. Not religious devotion. You.” Catherine admitted she didn’t know what to do when her second son got sick, telling the court, “The D.A. is actually right. I feel like I failed as a mother because they’re not alive.”
A study published in the journal Pediatrics (and co-authored by Swan) found that of 172 children who died after their parents refused medical care, 140 of the deaths were from conditions that, if treated, had survival rates that would have exceeded 90 percent. “These are typically not esoteric illnesses that have defied traditional healing techniques,” Peters says. “It’s what makes people who hear about it so angry.”
And while he does believe that changing statutes will help protect children, he’s not convinced that enough adherents will even view the law as a deterrent, as evidenced by the Schaibles. Because, Peters notes, “I think these parents feel sadness and grief, but they often say, ‘I would do it again.’”