An Idaho sheriff’s daunting battle to investigate when children of a faith-healing sect die – Los Angeles Times
The coroner’s van pulled into the driveway sometime after midnight, and for a moment — her dead daughter in her arms — LaTisha Shippy hated God.
“I had hate in my heart for him,” Shippy said. “I questioned my faith, and why this was happening. You don’t lose four children and not have some of that.”
Canyon County Coroner Vicki DeGeus-Morris found Shippy in bed and the baby’s body, cleaned and dressed, on a changing table in another room. “It was apparent that she had been dead for a while, as the skin was slipping off the entire torso of the baby,” DeGeus-Morris wrote in a coroner’s report.
The baby had been dead inside Shippy’s womb for days, DeGeus-Morris concluded, and yet Shippy had sought no medical help when she’d felt the nearly full-term baby stop moving. She and her fellow Followers of Christ consider professional medicine an engine of the devil. Instead, she had prayed.
In most states, failing to seek medical care for a nearly 40-week-old fetus might be a crime. Idaho is one of at least four states that provide religious groups broad exemptions from criminal prosecution and civil liability for the deaths of children attributable to medical neglect.
In deep-red Idaho, where the right to be left alone trumps all ideologies, lawmakers have repeatedly rejected proposed changes to the law that would impose criminal or civil penalties for failing to seek medical care for children with life-threatening conditions.
But a growing resistance to Idaho’s faith-healing statute is building here in the suburbs west of Boise, home to a group of Followers of Christ, a small Christian denomination that believes in faith healing and strict shunning of those who stray from the church’s teachings.
Faced with three deaths linked to faith healing in the county over the last four months, Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue has launched a campaign to change the law, and remove any religious exemptions for the legal obligation to seek medical care for children.
Donahue believes the law allows children to die unnecessarily, and painfully, in ways that the Followers of Christ may not medically understand. He has formed a unit in his department to investigate the death of every child connected to the group — and hopes his findings will prompt the coroner to conduct more complete death examinations of the children.
In Canyon County, children of church members have died from pneumonia, infection of the fetal membrane, failure to administer insulin for diabetes and other preventable causes, and critics say public officials have accepted the deaths too easily.
In the Shippy case, breaking with the custom of most American death investigations — especially those involving a child — DeGeus-Morris did not take the baby’s body with her or call the sheriff.
“It’s an atrocity,” said Donahue, 54, who first investigated faith-healing deaths as a Canyon County deputy. “If it was cattle being treated like this, no medical care, in distress, if you saw that from the street, we’d have a search warrant and we’d be kicking down doors.”
Donahue testified before a Senate committee in March, arguing that adults should be held criminally liable when they fail to seek medical help for seriously ailing children.
“I’ve heard we don’t want to criminalize the parent. If the parent is criminal, we need to prosecute,” he said. “It’s an embarrassment to our state.”
But Donahue may have been too optimistic about the Legislature’s intentions.
“Do you think that bill is going to pass?” Majority Leader Bart Davis asked on the Senate floor during debate later that month. “It won’t. Because this body is reluctant to punish people criminally for a firmly held religious belief.”
Like previous attempts to change the legislation, the bill was killed on the Senate floor.
Legislators from the Canyon County area vigorously defend the Followers’ right to their religious beliefs, and DeGeus-Morris appears to be conducting few investigations of the deaths of Followers’ children. The Canyon County prosecutor, citing the exemptions granted religious groups, doesn’t take potential cases of medical neglect if the family involved is a member of the Followers of Christ church.
Each year, on average, three children in Idaho die of causes for which they would have otherwise been hospitalized, according to a gubernatorial task force, and the child mortality rate among the Followers of Christ from 2002 to 2011 was 10 times that of the rest of Idaho.
Yet the church has found sympathetic ears in powerful quarters.
At a news conference in January, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill said legislators want to recognize religious beliefs and help children. “Most of the people in this room believe that God can help heal,” he said.
Dan Sevy’s voice is low and measured, the twang of his career as a country music singer lying heavy on every vowel. He has made a powerful ally in the Legislature, and when he told a Senate subcommittee about his two sons’ lungs filling with fluids as they slowly drowned in their own bodies, his voice never wavered.
“We happen to practice what you call faith healing,” Sevy told committee members. “As far as adherence to any law, who do you better obey, God or man?”
Sevy has become the public face of the Followers of Christ, in part because of his relationship to Idaho state Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, who represents Sevy’s district. Sevy’s band served as the musical entertainment for one of Lodge’s fundraisers last year, and she has emerged as one of the strongest voices opposing changes to the faith-healing law. She is not a member of the church.
“These are good people,” Lodge said. “They have a right to live as the law allows them without interference, that is what our Constitution [grants] them.”
On March 30, 2011, Sevy’s 14-year-old son Rockwell was reported dead after having been ill for “about two weeks,” according to DeGeus-Morris’ report. He had been running a fever and experiencing difficulty breathing, the report said, and died in his mother’s lap. Three years earlier, in 2008, DeGeus-Morris had issued the death certificate for Rockwell’s older brother, Gabriel Joe, 17. The cause of death was pneumonia.
In both cases, she confirmed the deaths, noted a lack of outward signs of trauma and left the bodies to the family.