IN FOCUS: Pennsylvania child deaths

CHILD Newsletter, vol. 1, 2013: Pennsylvania religious objectors lose a second baby
CHILD President’s Op-Ed: Protect children and faith with religion-neutral laws 6/25/2013
Homicide charges filed in second child’s death 5/22/2013
See The Kent Schaible case below for story on first child’s death

Radio Times WHYY Interview: Should refusing medical care for children be considered neglect? 5/14/2013 Interview begins at 15 minute mark.
Philadelphia Inquirer Op-Ed: End religious exemption 5/9/2013

Deaths and injuries of Pennsylvania children deprived of medical care on religious grounds

The Benjamin Reinert case
The Kent Schaible case

An open letter to the citizens of Pennsylvania

             On April 18 eight-month-old Brandon Schaible died in suburban Philadelphia after suffering for a week with diarrhea and a respiratory problem.  He got no medical care because, his parents said, “We believe God wants us to ask him for healing.”

             In 2009 the Schaibles let his 2-year-old brother Kent die of vaccine-preventable pneumonia without medical care.  “We tried to fight the devil and the devil won,” Mr. Schaible said.  The parents were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to ten years probation, which required them to take their surviving children to doctors and get medical care if a child became sick.  Baby Brandon was seen by a doctor only once—when he was ten days old.

             This tragedy dramatically illustrates that the Commonwealth cannot protect the children in faith-healing sects with probation officers or social workers alone.  When parents are as stubborn as the Schaibles, state agents would have to be in the home every day to protect their children.

             In the wake of the PennState child sex abuse scandal, several bills have been introduced this year in the Pennsylvania legislature.  They are promoted as “a complete overhaul” of state child protection laws, but they do nothing to save the lives of children in faith-healing sects.

            The children in faith-healing sects have several strikes against them from the moment they are born.  Many are born at home attended only by unlicensed church midwives.  This alone makes it unlikely that they will get newborn screening tests, but even if they were born in hospitals, Pennsylvania allows religious exemptions from all screening.  “No screening test shall be performed if a parent or guardian dissents on the ground that the test conflicts with a religious belief or practice.” 35 Penn. Stat. § 621(c)  Parents with religious objections can deprive their babies of metabolic screening, which detects several diseases that cause severe mental retardation or death; pulse oximetry, which detects critical congenital heart defects; and newborn hearing screening.  Another law allows these parents to refuse the prophylactic eyedrops that prevent blindness.

            Still another religious exemption allows children to be enrolled in schools and daycares without immunizations.  These unvaccinated carriers lower the level of protection for everybody.  One study showed they are 35 times more likely to contract measles than a properly vaccinated child.  We’ve had vivid examples.  In 1991 Philadelphia had 486 cases of measles including six deaths in two churches with religious objections to immunizations.  The outbreak spread to hundreds of people beyond those churches and caused deaths of three babies too young to be vaccinated.  It remains the largest measles outbreak in the country since 1991.

            Pennsylvania’s children in faith-healing sects have a greatly elevated risk of many diseases.  What does the Commonwealth tell their parents when these children get sick?  The law says children are not abused or neglected when their parents deprive them of medical care because of  “seriously held religious beliefs.”  23 Penn. Stat., § 6303(b)(3)  Instead the law requires county social workers to “closely monitor” the child.

            The law may, however, discourage would-be reporters from informing the county about sick children in faith-healing sects.  With a law saying these children are not abused or neglected, those mandated to report abuse or neglect may assume there is no neglect to report.

            Furthermore, clergypersons are not required to report information obtained in “confidential communications” nor to take any training in how or what to report.  If a faith healer’s child is not in school, there is little chance s/he will be seen by a mandated reporter.

            Over nine years Philadelphia parents Roger and Dawn Winterborne let five children die of pneumonia without medical care because of their religious beliefs.  Only after the fifth death did child protective services become aware of these tragedies and “closely monitor” the family for a brief period.  But then the family moved to Harrisburg and had a sixth child die of untreated pneumonia three years after the fifth.

             Equally sad was the death of nine-year-old Benjamin Reinert in Philadelphia in 2002.  In August the boy lost his mother to an untreated infection and sank into a deep depression.  In December child protection services got a report that Ben was sick and his father was not getting him medical care because of religious beliefs.  County social workers visited twice, but the father said the boy just had “a sore foot” so the social worker did not try to get medical care.  The next day Benjamin died of untreated leukemia.  The pain in his foot was likely caused by inflammation of the bone.

             Social workers are not able to “closely monitor” a sick child as well as a parent can and should do.  Furthermore, social workers do not have the medical training to know when a child is seriously ill in all cases.

            Additionally, the law allows the county social workers to monitor only while a child in the faith-healing sect is sick.  It is imperative that the law require parents themselves to provide their children with the necessities of life without exception for religious beliefs.

             We know of thirty Pennsylvania children who have died after their parents withheld medical care on religious grounds.  Three sets of parents have let more than one child die without medical care.

            The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees to all citizens “equal protection of the law.”  We would be outraged by laws saying that African-American or Jewish children do not have the same legal protections as other children.  It is long past time for Pennsylvania to give children in faith-healing sects equal protection.  That means their parents must have the same legal duty to obtain medical care for sick and injured children that other parents have.  Pennsylvania should repeal its religious exemption to child abuse.

Please join CHILD‘s efforts in getting these exemptions removed.

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