Shocking Numbers of Children Die in America When Their Parents Turn to Faith-Based Healing
Back in 1944, the Supreme Court ruled that parental authority cannot interfere with a child’s welfare, even in cases of religious expression. “The right to practice religion freely,” the court concluded, “does not include liberty to expose… [a] child… to ill health or death.”
That decision hasn’t stopped 38 states and the District of Columbia from providing religious exemptions in their civil codes on child abuse and neglect. These exemptions can prevent Child Protective Services from investigating and monitoring cases of religion-based medical neglect and discourage reporting. Seventeen states have religious defenses to felony crimes against children. And 15 states have religious defenses to misdemeanors.
But while much of the criticism directed toward faith-healers lands on Christian Scientists, there are a number of other denominations that also discourage members from turning to modern medicine. One is the Church of the First Born, a network of more than 100 small Pentecostal churches sprawling across 20 states.
In defense of its faith-healing practices, the Church of the First Born cites biblical verse James 5:14: “If any be sick, call for the elders of the church, let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”
In 1983, Rita Swan founded Children’s Health Is a Legal Duty (CHILD), an organization that lobbies against state laws that protect parents who choose faith over modern medicine. In 1998, she decided to team up with pediatrician Seth M. Asser to investigate the child fatalities associated with faith healing.
The two began reviewing the deaths of 172 children where medical care was withheld on religious grounds. Their study showed that 140 of these children would have had a 90% likelihood of survival had they received routine medical care. CHILD estimates that since 1976, at least 82 children linked to the Church of the First Born have died from lack of medical treatment.
Like so many other court rulings, the Prince v. Massachusetts decision has been marred by contradictory rulings, state versus federal discrepancies and legal ambiguity. Does the Supreme Court ruling stand independent of the Free Exercise Clause? What about the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause? Should this constitutional argument be extended to all denominations that practice faith-based healing?
The answers to these questions will differ depending on who’s giving them. But there is one piece of literature that should be taken from the Court’s 1944 decision: “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves, but…they are not free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children.”
Over the past decade or so, a number of children born into the Church of the First Born have met untimely deaths. While these incidents may have gone underreported and under-investigated in the past, the Internet has afforded the public an opportunity to learn more about these children and their deaths. Here are the histories of five such children.
Syble Rossiter, 2001-2013
Travis Rossiter, 39, and Wenona Rossiter, 37, were convicted of first- and second-degree manslaughter in the death of their daughter, Syble after the 12-year-old died from untreated diabetic ketoacidosis. In Oregon, where the family is from, the sentence conviction carries a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.
As Medical Daily reports, Syble suffered from type 1 diabetes, formerly known as juvenile diabetes, a condition in which a person is unable to produce insulin. Without insulin therapy, type 1 diabetes is fatal. The most common cause of death among pediatric diabetics is diabetic ketoacidosis, which is caused by a buildup of fat metabolites called ketones. Symptoms include vomiting, dehydration and confusion, eventually leading to coma and death if left untreated.
The Rossiters assumed Syble had come down with the flu.
“I always prayed that God would allow the body to naturally take care of itself… I had no idea – the day my daughter died – that the body was destroying itself. Instead of taking care of itself. I had no idea,” Wenona said on the stand. “It’s been hard,” she said about listening to testimony in the trial. “Especially hearing from the doctors. It just tore me up inside that as a mother, I had no idea that that was going on.”
At the time, local Police Captain Eric Carter insisted the 12-year-old “had a treatable medical condition and the parents did not provide adequate and necessary medical care to that child.”
Travis Rossiter told a detective that doctors are for people who don’t believe strongly enough in God.
Wenona Rossiter’s own brother died of untreated leukemia at the age of 7. When prosecutors asked if she believed it was God’s will for her daughter to die, she said yes.
With insulin therapy administered through injections or an insulin pump, people with type 1 diabetes can live a long, normal life.
Austin Sprout, September 1996-2012
Russel Bellew, 39, and his wife Brandi, 36, were arrested in February 2012 for the death of their 16-year-old son, Austin Sprout. Austin fell ill in December and began suffering from flu-like symptoms. Rather than taking the teenager to see a doctor, his mother and stepfather chose to pray for his recovery.
Austin’s condition continued to deteriorate for over a week, until he eventually died. An autopsy revealed that he died from an infection from a burst appendix.
In exchange for pleading guilty, “faith healers” Russel and Brandi Bellew were placed on probation for five years. The couple has six other surviving children. At first, the court ruled that the children would be closely monitored by the state's Department of Human Services. Any time a child misses a day of school due to illness, the family must consult a doctor, the Register-Guard reported. A few months later, however, the children were removed from the home and became wards of the state.
Brian Sprout, Austin Sprout's father and Brandi Bellew's first husband, died in 2007 of sepsis after seeking prayer instead of medical treatment for a leg injury.
At the time of Austin's death, his uncle Shawn Sprout defended the congregation's practice of faith healing. ”We trust in God for everything. We trusted him to take care of our illnesses and heal,” he proclaimed.
Zachary Swezey, 1995-2009
Greg Swezey, 48, and his wife JaLea, 46, accepted a plea deal in 2012 that spared them jail time but holds them responsible for the death of their 17-year-old son, Zachary, who died in 2009 of a ruptured appendix. His parents had originally faced second-degree murder charges.
After falling ill, Zachary was bedridden for days with a fever, diarrhea and vomiting. His parents claimed they gave their son the option of going to the hospital but he declined.
The family summoned church elders from Olympia and Spokane who anointed the ailing teenager's body with olive oil and prayed over him.
Doctors confirmed that an appendectomy would have saved Zachary’s life. Appendectomies are relatively safe and simple procedures that have dramatically reduced the mortality rate attributed to acute appendicitis. Over the past 50 years, the rate has dropped from 26% to less than 1%.
In 2012, JaLea Swezey pleaded guilty to third-degree criminal mistreatment and received a suspended sentence. Greg Swezey was charged with second-degree criminal mistreatment. His case was continued for two years.
Swezey’s charge was later reduced to third-degree criminal mistreatment under the condition that he commit no felonies over the following two years, and he also received a suspended sentence.
During his testimony, Greg Swezey claimed he did not know until minutes before Zachary died on March 18, 2009, that his son was dying.
Aaron Grady, 2000-2009
Susan Grady, 43, was sentenced to two and a half years in jail for the 2009 death of her 9-year-old son Aaron, who died of complications from diabetes. Grady was convicted for second-degree manslaughter in the boy’s death. The maximum penalty for second-degree manslaughter is four years.
In an audio-recorded interview, Grady told Broken Arrow Police, “I felt like God would heal him,” Tulsa World reports.
Grady continued, “We just believe that prayer works.”
“I didn't want to be weak in my faith and disappoint God… I don't believe what I did, with the way I believe, was wrong. I try to have faith and do what I feel is right,” she added.
Aaron lost 16 pounds in six days, which Michael Baxter, a pediatrician involved in the case, said proved that the boy “suffered from child neglect.”
Rhiana Rose Schmidt 2003-2003
On May 12, a jury convicted Dewayne and Maleta Schmidt of reckless homicide in connection with the death of their 2-day-old daughter, Rhiana Rose.
Rhianna was born breech with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She turned blue and stopped breathing three times before dying of puerperal sepsis, a common infection at birth that is easily treated with antibiotics.
"My clients are being prosecuted as a result of their faith in God—their religious beliefs. ‘They didn't fail to act. They acted. They acted in accordance with their religious beliefs," said the couple’s defense attorney.
Deputy prosecutor Matt Solomon told RTV6 during an interview away from the courtroom, "Parents do have some rights. Those rights don't extend to this area where you're talking about reckless conduct.”
Instead of seeking medical attention for his daughter, Dewayne Schmidt called church elders to pray for Rhiana.
Both parents were sentenced to six years in prison, but the penalty was later reduced to one year each at a work release facility, with each of them serving 6-month terms alternately so that one parent could be at home caring for their other children.
Following the conviction, prosecuting attorneys asked that the couple’s other two children be ordered to receive medical care if needed. The judge stopped short of granting the request but appointed a guardian to notify the court about possible health concerns.
“I thought we lived in a country where I had freedom of religion, but I’ve come to realize it’s only if it agrees with everyone else’s,” Maleta Schmidt said. “I can’t believe it ever came to this.”
Judge Margret G. Robb later wrote that "Parents, while free to make martyrs of themselves, are not free under identical circumstances to make martyrs of their children,” citing the Supreme Court’s 1944 decision.
Wait for a Miracle or Choose Modern Medicine?
It’s easy to demonize these parents, to say that if they really loved their children, they would have done something more than pray. But even CHILD founder Rita Swan admitted that the Schmidts’ love for their baby was “undeniable.” In the birth announcement for Rhiana, Maleta Schmidt prepared a photo of herself and her baby, tiny ink footprints and a poem to Rhiana, reading:
You are more perfect than I could’ve hoped for,
More beautiful than I could’ve dreamed,
More precious than I could’ve imagined.
I love you more than I could’ve known.
Religious indoctrination is not something that’s easy to stray away from. Strict legal repercussions for failing to get one’s child medical treatment will help encourage parents to act in accordance with the laws. But perhaps the law would be most effective if coupled with an internal push for reform. Rita Swan was a former Christian Scientist herself; she left the church after her young son died without medical attention while a Christian Science practitioner prayed for him.
Some parents will follow in Swan’s path and others won’t. But those who do will join a community of lobbyists who have managed to make their point loud and clear: miracles may exist, but modern medicine is something to which all children are entitled.