The controversy started in April, when The Guardian published a story about Mariah Walton. Walton, who now lives in Boise, was raised in a Mormon fundamentalist home, born in the small town of Declo. She was born with a congenital hole in her heart that early surgical intervention would likely have repaired. She didn't have surgery, though, and now she needs a heart and lung transplant.
Walton said her parents treated her symptoms with prayer and natural remedies like vitamins—and, she said, they never took her to a doctor. For that, she'd like to see her parents prosecuted, but it's unlikely that will happen because in Idaho, parents who deny medical treatment for their children on religious grounds can't be prosecuted for medical neglect. It's a door cracked open for faith healing in the Gem State—and one many want closed.
"We would like to see this exemption lifted," said Ada County Prosecutor's Office Special Crimes Unit Chief Jean Fisher. "I don't think the rights of parents should so supercede the rights of the child."
Fisher addressed this comment to the Children at Risk-Faith Healing Working Group, an interim committee of the Idaho Legislature, which held its first public meeting Aug. 4 at the Idaho Statehouse. The committee declined to recommend any action, and though Sen. Dan Johnson (R-Lewiston) promised the panel would reconvene at a later time to continue discussion of the issue, he didn't set a date for a future meeting. Instead of delivering action to criminalize a practice many say is nothing more than child medical neglect protected by freedom of religion, it received input—almost all of it demonstrating the harms of faith healing or outright calling for lifting the exemption.
One of those voices came from Linda Martin, a former member of Followers of Christ (FOC), a Christian sect active in southwest Idaho that practices faith healing. She said she had lobbied the Idaho Legislature for three years to close the religious exemption, and lost family members as children to treatable illnesses like diabetes and bronchial pneumonia. She then recalled the now-infamous scene at the Peaceful Valley Cemetery near Caldwell, where FOC has buried more than 200 children in the last century.
"There are children in those graves, and we don't know who they are or how old they are," Martin said.
For her, medical neglect among radical religious groups like FOC is a problem obscured by their secretiveness. They give birth at home and keep few records accessible to local governments. When she was admitted to the hospital for the first time, Walton didn't have a birth certificate or social security number.
Earlier this year, the Idaho Child Fatality Review Team issued its annual report with data collated from 2013. It determined five Idaho infants had died that year from lack of medical intervention. In the past three years, 10 infants and children died under preventable or treatable circumstances ranging from intestinal blockages, meconium aspiration and sepsis. The report acknowledged its data may be incomplete because it had been obtained from death certificates and coroner's reports.
"Since Vital Statistics does not compile the number of deaths in this category, it is difficult to estimate the actual number of preventable deaths to children of religious objectors," the report said.
The problem of underreporting child injuries and deaths due to the religious exception has stymied state groups. According to Roxanne Printz of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, her department could substantiate 13 cases of medical neglect, regardless of religious objection, out of a total of 22,000 calls generally pertaining to children's welfare. When asked by Sen. Janet Trujillo (R-Idaho Falls) if the state was fulfilling its duty to protect its children, Nicole McKay, Health and Human Services division chief of the Idaho Attorney General's office said, "If [incidents of child medical neglect] don't come to the attention of the state, then no."
Walton wasn't in attendance at the panel, but her sister, Sara Brady, was there to defend her parents against allegations that they'd needlessly endangered Walton. She denied that she or her parents denied her ill sister access to doctors and decried the "politicization" of her sister's illness.
"No one was turning a blind eye to a child in need of immediate medical care," Brady said.
Brady's testimony, however, was a pivotal moment for articulating the argument against revisiting the religious exemption, couching her parents' search for non-medical care for their daughter in the language of liberty and preserving medical choice.
"At what point do we stop having a law for everything?" she asked the panel.
In fact, removing the exemption would equalize administering justice to parents accused of child medical neglect, regardless of motivation; but the ideals of personal choice were invoked by another defender of faith healing, Followers of Christ member Dan Sevy, who told the panel he and his fellow church members would continue to rely on faith to heal their injured and sick, even if the Idaho Legislature outlawed the practice. When asked how he would balance the right to free religious practice with the state's duty to protect children, Sevy said the solution is "recognize faith healing, because treatment is treatment."
"We each should have a personal choice for the health of ourselves and our families," he said.
The Followers of Christ, he said, are fundamentally at odds with evidence-based science. He offered histories of the words "medicine" and "pharmaceutical" that suggested the concept of modern medicine has its origins in paganism.
"We believe pharmaceuticals and medicine are from Satan," he said. "That is our belief, and use it to condemn no one but ourselves."
A previous version of this story mistakenly described Declo as a northern Idaho town. We regret the error.