Canyon County Sheriff urging lawmakers to make change to faith healing laws in Idaho

CALDWELL - In 1972 Idaho passed a law allowing parents with religious objections to medical treatment to have the the legal right to let their children die without seeking any medical attention. It's now a concern brought forward by The Governor's Task Force on Children at Risk, and a law some Idaho officials say needs to be changed.

"First and foremost the state needs to address it," Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue said."At the end of the day, i think the state needs to do whatever it takes to protect children."

The Followers of Christ is a religious group that doesn't believe in western medical practices, believing instead in the power of God, and healing by the power of prayer. Accepting whatever happens naturally to the patient is God's will. As a result, children are dying in what some medical professionals say are preventable deaths.

The causes of death range from food poisoning and diabetes to pneumonia and heart defects. Sheriff Donahue says deaths to be prevented whenever possible, urging lawmakers to remove the religious shield from state law.

Other officials disagree.

"I would say leave it alone," Canyon County Coroner Vicki DeGues-Morris said. "I took my children to the doctors, I go to the doctor, but that's my way of living. But i can't judge somebody else's way living."

Currently, Idaho is one of six states in the U.S. where religious exemptions are allowed for negligent homicide, manslaughter or capital murder.

"Where does it end?" Sheriff Donahue said. "If it's okay to do this under this belief system, then is it okay to do it under this believe system? Or this belief system? Or that believe system?"

In 2013, the Idaho Child Fatality Review Team determined five deaths of infants less than a month old were preventable, had they received medical treatment. According to a task force report sent to the governor, two more children died in 2015 under circumstances where medical care would have prevented death.

According to the report, the number of deaths among children in the Peaceful Valley Cemetery - used among the Followers of Christ - from 2002 to 2011, was ten times the rate of child deaths in the rest of the state.

The medical director at St. Luke's Children's Hospital in Boise has even encouraged a re-evaluation of  the current Idaho state law in 2015, suggesting the addition of the option of state intervention if a child faces imminent death of severe disability.

Sheriff Donahue has urged lawmakers in the past to remove the religious shield from the current law, similar to actions recently taken in the neighboring state of Oregon, where parents can now be prosecuted for neglect if they don't seek medical attention for treatable issues.

"We don't have to reinvent the wheel here, we just don't have to!" Sheriff Donahue said. "Many states have removed this religious shield."

However, Canyon County Coroner Vicki DeGues-Morris says she feels a change in the law won't necessarily result in a change of lifestyle. Instead, possibly lower rates of reporting deaths.

"If we change the law and force our beliefs on them, where in Idaho they're given that right, who is going to know if they call us or not?" DeGues-Morris said. "They may go underground."

DeGues-Morris says some of those followers from Oregon are now moving to Canyon County. "So they can continue to live the way that they choose," she said. "They're basically leaving their state to come over here because they're being treated fairly."

Over the last few decades, the Canyon County Coroner's Office has established a respectful relationship with the Followers of Christ, who now call the coroner directly when dealing with death.

"It used to be that they didn't want us to do autopsies, but now they know we have to do that. I know that they respect my job; I respect their beliefs, and as long as it's a mutual respect, we have a wonderful relationship with these people," DeGues-Morris said. "We don't do anything different than we would with anyone else; the only thing different is that they've not seen a doctor."

The Coroner's Office then notifies law enforcement who arrives on scene for questioning, but at times deaths go hours before being reported and upon law enforcement arrival, the child may have been moved  and evidence altered.

"They have certain traditions and things that they do prior to calling us, and so we allow them to do prayers and whatever else they do, cleansing of the body is just the normal thing for them and that's their right," DeGues-Morris said.

But from a law enforcement perspective, Sheriff Donahue says it's hard for law enforcement to do their jobs when evidence has been altered.

"Clothing's been changed, they've been swaddled in blankets, which again, perhaps that's part of their belief system and what have you, but the scene is altered," Sheriff Donahue said. "What evidence is not here now that was earlier?"

In a typical situation where the religious shield is not being applied, children found to be neglected, harmed or unsafe would be removed from the home, but in these unique cases law enforcement doesn't have that option.

"If we ever were to go to a house where there's really a child in imminent danger, then they say, 'Oh well that's our religion,'" Sheriff Donahue says with visible frustration.

The religious clause puts law enforcement in a tough situation, left only with the option of enforcing current code.

"I have issue with that! And i think  it's the legislature's responsibility, they're the ones that enact the law, and we can only enforce what is enacted," Donahue said. "We're going to enforce whatever law is on the books, that's what our job is,  but you're asking us to almost look the other way; when we have to look at you, but we don't have to look at you, that's not a balance of the law and the law should be equal across the board for everyone."

In her 33 years at the Coroner's Office, DeGues-Morris says she's never seen a child death from within The Followers of Christ as a result of abuse or injury, but it's a topic Sheriff Donahue continues to urge lawmakers to make a change.

No official bill on the topic is scheduled for a hearing in the 2017 legislative session, but there are rough drafts in the works. Lawmakers are working with wording to discuss adding a clause in existing code that would allow state intervention in dire cases, while emphasizing on the continued right to religious freedom.

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