Sunday, June 10, 2012

In-Depth: Religious Stupidity, or "Faith Healing," as an Excuse for Child Neglect?

Zachery Swezey, 17, faith healing victim.
In August 2011, a couple whose pet Burmese python crushed their two-year-old daughter to death was sentenced to 12 years in prison. In Februray 2012, a couple who allowed their 8-year-old son to die of cancer without seeking treatment was sentenced to 8 years in prison. And this month, a couple who allowed their 17-year-old son to die of a ruptured appendix because they chose to pray instead of seeking medical treatment will get off without any prison time thanks to a law that makes exceptions for religiously motivated neglect and stupidity.

Zachery Swezey was a junior in high school who, like millions of people, got appendicitis. His parents chose to ignore proven medical options that has long rendered appendicitis more of a nuisance than a life threatening decision.They watched as he writhed in pain and misery, offering nothing but empty prayers while he died the kind of death that we don't even allow a death row inmate to suffer.

The couple, Greg and JaLea Swezey, are members of the Church of the First Born, whose doctrine of faith healing has left a bloody of trail of agony and senseless death.Some of the Church of the First Born's victims include:

  • Saundra Arnold, 13, who died in the 1960s after being sick 18 days with an intestinal blockage. Her mother did not believe in seeking medical treatment and offered her prayer and a deathbed baptism.
  • Travis Drake, 14, of Colorado, who died in 1982 several days after his appendix ruptured and his parents chose prayer over treatment.
  • Desiree Camren, 14, of Oklahoma, who died in 1987 after a week of illness because, despite the fact that her parents knew she was dying, they “believed her death was punishment from God because the father had not been attending church.”
  • Newborn Lukas Long, who died several hours after being delivered by unlicensed midwives in Colorado in 1987. The baby suffered breathing problems and his parents called the church elders to pray for healing. Six hours later, he died.
  • Amanda Bates, 13, who died from diabetes in 2001 because her parents refused to seek medical treatment. The Mesa County coroner ruled her death a homicide.

In most of these cases, the parents were tried and convicted on counts of manslaughter. Joshua and Mindy Glory, for example, were sentenced to 16 years in prison after their infant son died from pneumonia. But when Jason Lockhart died at age 9 of a ruptured appendix in 1982, his Church of the First Born parents were acquitted of first degree manslaughter thanks to a religious exemption law in Oklahoma that made child neglect excusable by sincerely held religious belief. Public outrage eventually led to that law being changed.

Yet in Washington state, Zachery Swezey's death will go largely unpunished because a law similar to the one on the books in Oklahoma in 2002 remains in place.Greg and JaLea Swezey were acquitted of second degree murder when a jury deadlocked, citing State Law RCW 9A.42.005 as the source of their confusion. 

At first, the law seems like a clear indictment of the Swezey parents:
"The legislature finds that there is a significant need to protect children and dependent persons, including frail and elder and vulnerable adults, from abuse and neglect by their parents, by persons entrusted with their physical custody, or by persons employed to provide them with the basic necessities of life. The legislature further finds that such abuse and neglect often takes the forms of either withholding from them the basic necessities of life, including food, water, shelter, clothing, and healthcare, or abandoning them, or both."
Then, the law devolves into stupidity and superstition unworthy of the 19th century:
"It is the intent of the legislature that a person who, in good faith, is furnished Christian Science treatment by a duly accredited Christian Science practitioner in lieu of medical care is not considered deprived of medically necessary health care or abandoned."
Christian Science is a sect with a similar approach to medicine that has a blood trail even longer than the Church of the First Born. Although the Swezeys are not Christian Scientists, they were able to claim that there neglect was in the same spirit of the Christian Scientists as the law intended to protect.

After being acquitted of second degree murder, the couple averted even being charged with manslaughter by accepting plea deals for "third degree criminal mistreatment." Their punishment? They must not commit a felony in the next two years and the parents must call Child Protective Services if any other children get sick in the future. Case closed. Sorry, Zachery.

Their lawyer isn't completely happy, however. He said that the law is "begging" to be changedchanged to ensure that it is clear that any couple of any faith cannot be held legally accountable for allowing their child to die in agony and torment. I agree the law should be changed, but in quite a different way.

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