There were 183 tiny coffins on the steps of the Boise, Idaho Capitol building Tuesday. 183 coffins representing children who have died in the state since 1970 because their parents neglected medical help, hoping that God would step in.
But God didn’t, writes Hemant Mehta, in his Friendly Atheist blog.
“Those kids could’ve been saved if they had seen a doctor; instead their parents prayed over their bodies… only to watch them die since rational people would’ve known that God was never going to intervene.”
You see, Idaho doesn’t punish parents who do this because the state has a faith-healing exemption in its laws. And that’s why the group Protect Idaho Kids held a march through downtown Boise and placed the coffins on the Capitol’s steps.
Because Idaho and five other states allow faith-based exemptions for parents charged with negligent homicide or manslaughter after a child has died. So it should come as no surprise that these types of death are common in the state.
Protect Idaho’s Kids held the protest in the hopes of shedding light on just how serious this problem is and perhaps spurring politicians to act.
“You would think the ‘pro-life party’ would have some compassion for kids who are already born. You would think they would do everything in their power to limit this brand of religious abuse. But so far, no action has been taken. No bills to remove the exemption have been introduced.”
One caveat: Mehta is referring to the current session.
In a press release, the group stated that it wants to put an end to “exemptions in child abuse laws that provide religious groups broad immunity from criminal prosecution and civil liability in cases in which children get very sick, become disabled, or die from medical neglect.”
Speaking to the crowd at the Capitol, Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue had this to say:
“Adults should be held criminally liable when they fail to seek medical help for seriously ailing children.”
Donahue was specifically referring to the Followers of Christ church, which has a strong following in Canyon County, and whose members (of course), do not provide their kids with medical care when they need it.
In their press release, the group also noted:
“Willie Hughes knows first hand of the toll denial of medical care to children can take. He suffered through whooping cough at age three and a concussion at six with no medical care including over-the-counter pain relief medicine.”
Hughes told the crowd the sad story of what happened to his brother.
“My brother, Steven, was born with spina bifida,” he said. “Our parents never took Steven to a doctor. Steven got very sick when he was three, and the ‘Elders’ prayed and rubbed olive oil on him. Steven passed away later that night of bronchial pneumonia.”
Little Steven never saw a doctor or a physical therapist. He never even had a wheelchair.
“I remember his was the first body that I saw and touched,” said Hughes, who grew up in the Followers of Christ Church. “It was traumatic for a 41/2-year-old to see his little brother in a coffin. I can’t tell you how many dead bodies I’ve seen.”
Then there’s little GarrettDean Eells, who died when he was only six days old, who died from untreated pneumonia, and Jackson Scott Porter, a girl, who lived for just 20 minutes and never received any prenatal care. Both children were buried at Peaceful Valley Cemetary.
According to Jackson’s grandfather, Mark Jerome, the newborn died in his home about three months ago, when his daughter went into labor.
“Well, when she came over, she was just sick — like a kidney infection or something like that,” Jerome told KATU’s Dan Tilkin. “So she just wanted to come over to the house for a couple days. When she had the baby no one expected it, it just happened that quick.”
Despite this tragedy, Jerome said he doesn’t regret that his daughter received no prenatal care.
“That’s the way we believe,” he said. “We believe in God and the way God handles the situation, the way we do things.”
There are roughly 600 graves in the cemetery, which is used primarily by the Followers of Christ Church, and nearly one-third of those graves belong to a child. Faith healing and the belief that sickness and death are part of God’s will have long been associated with this church. But as coroner, autopsy reports and the memories of former members reveal, there is a long history of dying from curable ailments.
“We assume that a lot of deaths can be prevented,” said Bruce Wingate, who founded Protect Idaho Kids.
If lawmakers don’t lift Idaho’s faith healing exemption, he estimates that three or four kids will lose their lives this year.
“Because this happens over time, people don’t get shocked,” he said. “But 183 kids is outrageous.”
So he built the tiny pine coffins.
“No child should die as a result of neglect of any kind,” said Roger Sherman, executive director of the Idaho Children’s Trust Fund.
“Idaho policymakers have chosen to ignore this aspect of medical neglect,” Sherman said, in the midst of the crowd carrying the coffins. “The most vulnerable members of society needed the protection of adults in society.”
It’s especially on point when Mehta asks:
“How can Idaho politicians listen to those testimonies and do nothing? It’s not surprising when you realize they care far more about ‘religious freedom’ than the lives of people who suffer because that freedom can go too far?”
“How many more children have to die before Republicans do something meaningful to prevent it? We know gun violence doesn’t bother them; it’s hard to believe religious violence will spur them into action either.”
He added that protests like this educate the public, and if enough people act, politicians will pay attention if they want to remain in office.
Let’s hope Mehta is right.
You can watch Tilkin interview members of the community in the video below.
Here’s the trailer for an upcoming documentary on this tragic issue.
Featured image courtesy of Faith Healing via YouTube video