BOISE - In Idaho, parents are allowed by law to shield their children from medical care, even when faced with potentially life-threatening illnesses or injuries, in lieu of prayer or faith-healing.
Idaho is one of six states in the U.S. where religious exemptions are allowed in the deaths of minor children, protecting parents from possible negligent homicide charges. This means if a child dies because they weren’t treated with medicine, the parents are not legally held responsible.
One local religious group that eschews most forms of modern medicine is the Followers of Christ.
A former member of the church tells KTVB that because prayer is the only remedy used in the church, children are suffering and dying of preventable and curable ailments.
"My first memories were my mother lifting me up and holding me up so I could look into a coffin and look at dead people," said Linda Martin.
KTVB obtained over a dozen autopsy reports from children of Followers of Christ members that have died since the early 2000s. Causes of death in those reports included flu-like symptoms, food poisoning, pneumonia, and still births.
It's something that Martin saw first-hand.
"I watched my baby cousins die," she said. "Later on when I left the church I watched my 2-year-old nephew die, when I tried to get help with Health and Welfare they told me the parents weren't doing anything wrong."
Current church members have declined repeated requests for comment on this story over the last six months. Members of the church did, however, comment on their beliefs during a special legislative working group hearing last summer.
During that hearing, Dan Sevy, a Followers of Christ church member, said pharmaceuticals and medicine are a product from Satan. He went on to explain that pharmaceuticals are derived from the Greek word "pharmakeia," a word they say translates to witchcraft and sorcery.
Sevy says the Followers are firm in their belief that heaven waits for those who follow God's word, and believe in the power of prayer.
"The medical profession I understand, they want to help, their intentions are good, but our intentions are good," said Sevy. "Life extends beyond this earth."
The Followers of Christ has branches in several states. In Idaho, a large majority of church members live in Canyon County. They bury their deceased children at Peaceful Valley Cemetery, where two new graves have been dug in the last three months.
The deaths of children from treatable ailments stand as a symbol to some that it's time for a change.
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue says he thinks religious shield laws create a double standard.
"Some people say marijuana is their religious beliefs, but it's still against the law," said Donahue. “You got to quit worrying about, 'oh we are persecuting these people.' You aren't persecuting them, you aren't saying you have to change your religion, what we're saying is you have to put the law across the board equal for everyone, and you can't hide behind that religious shield.”
Canyon County Coroner Vicki DeGeus-Morris disagrees, saying the law should be left alone. DeGeus-Morris and her office are called to every child death in the church. She says fears that the laws are being used to cover up child abuse are unfounded.
"If we saw signs of child abuse we have a duty to report, and we would do so," she said.
Still, untreated children do suffer, and like any parent, members of the followers struggle with that.
"Suffering is real, it’s real all over the world, and its real right here and it's real personal," Sevy said during the hearing. "And there is no greater suffering than one that is personal to himself, whether that be him or his children and I, as a parent, find the suffering of my children far greater than my own."
DeGeus-Morris recently made statements saying that she sees child deaths from the church, “maybe once, twice a month or maybe less.”
Those numbers were alarming because of how different they were from a 2015 report from the Idaho Child Fatality Review Team. The review team's numbers showed that from 2011 through 2015, no more than five kids from the Followers of Christ had died in a single year in Idaho.
DeGeus-Morris now says she misspoke.
"I can clarify that,” she told KTVB. “I think we probably see one to two, three maybe a year."
For Sheriff Donahue though, only one number matters.
"One child is too many," he said. "I don't have to wait to see if there is five or 10 or 20, I don't have to. I already know. One is too many."
Concerns have also been raised about church members altering death scenes. DeGeus-Morris admits it does happen.
"They pray over the body for several hours, they cleanse the body, they redress the body and then they call us," she said.
The practice is concerning to Donahue.
"There is a gray area, some would say it's not, I would say it is," he said. "You've altered the scene, you destroyed evidence."
The Idaho Legislature has been challenged on the issue of faith-healing since passing religious shield laws that protected parents who objected to medical treatment in the early 1970's.
Over the last decade bills have been drafted to repeal those laws by several state senators and representatives, but none of them ultimately received hearings.
At the request of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, a working group was put together in 2016 to study the issue and make legislative recommendations. The group published a report in early February with their findings.
The seven-page report concluded that the faith-healing exemptions should remain in place:
"Finding the right balance in Idaho law between protecting children and honoring a parent's free exercise of religion is challenging," the report reads. "In spite of this challenge, we believe that religious beliefs and practices should continue to be recognized as methods of treatment in health care choices in Idaho."
DeGeus-Morris agrees with that conclusion, saying she fears things will get worse if the law ever changes.
"I think we are going to see a lot of cases that aren't reported," she said. "I think we are going to see things go underground. I don't see cooperation, because these people are going to be afraid that every time a child dies, they are going to be charged with child abuse.”
Donahue argues that child death cases are already underreported, despite the protections.
"I have no doubt in my mind that we don't get all the reports of mortality,” said Donahue.
Former church member Linda Martin shares that belief.
"I have seen public records on cases where children don't have birth certificates," she explained. "If a child doesn't have a birth certificate and they die, and its legal to bury them in your backyard in Canyon County, who knows how many have died."
Ultimately though, change depends on action by the Legislature. Donahue says it’s on the legislators to finally do something.
"To sit back and do nothing, that is criminal," said Donahue.
Idaho lawmakers are currently considering several options to change the state's faith-healing laws, but details are being kept under wraps. Similar measures failed to receive hearings each of the last two legislative sessions.
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