Third Followers of Christ death charged

by Rita Swan, President of CHILD

On July 30 Followers of Christ parents Dale and Shannon Hickman of Oregon City, Oregon, were charged with second-degree manslaughter in the death of their son.

It is the third time in the past two years that church members have been indicted for withholding lifesaving medical care from a child.

More than 80 Followers’ children are buried in the church cemetery near Oregon City. Many died from medically-treatable illnesses, but until 2008 no criminal charges had been filed against Followers of Christ parents.

The Hickmans’ son was born on Sept. 27 but lived only nine hours. The boy died of staph pneumonia and complications from prematurity.

No one with medical training attended the birth, and no one called a doctor or ambulance.

Marci and Jeffrey Beagley, the second set of Followers’ parents to be charged, were convicted of criminally negligent homicide in February and, in March, sentenced to 16 months each in prison. They refused to get medical care for their 16-year-old son Neil. The boy had a urinary tract obstruction, probably congenital, that eventually caused kidney failure.

It is the first conviction of the Followers for negligent homicide. It is also the first conviction of an Oregon mother for neglecting to provide medical care to her child because of her belief in faith healing. In the previous faith-death criminal cases, the mothers were acquitted because the juries felt the husbands controlled the family and women were not allowed to make decisions.

Oregon congregations of the Christian Science church, Followers of Christ, and Church of the Firstborn have religious beliefs against medical care. The Christian Science church got the Oregon legislature to enact religious exemptions to homicide by abuse or neglect, manslaughter, criminal mistreatment, criminal nonsupport, child neglect and all preventive and diagnostic measures for protecting the health of children.

For decades the Followers of Christ let children die without medical care, and public officials took no notice. Between July 1997 and February 1998 three Followers of Christ children died of readily treatable conditions—a kidney infection, a strangulated hernia, and diabetes.

Then the press investigated and found 78 children buried in the Followers of Christ cemetery near Oregon City. Because of public outrage, CHILD in coalition with several Oregon organizations was able to get five religious exemptions repealed in 1999.

We hoped that clearer laws would motivate the Followers of Christ to change their behavior and for years it seemed that they had. The Clackamas County District Attorney told us she met with some of their leaders and explained the new statutes to them. People told us they saw Followers with their children in hospital emergency rooms. The Followers continued to have fetal deaths for mothers who got no prenatal care or medical attention at childbirth, but we didn’t hear of another born child dying of medical neglect until 2003, and investigators decided not to pursue charges in that case because the parents disclosed no awareness of symptoms of a serious illness.

In 2008, however, two Followers’ children died of treatable illnesses without medical care, and the parents of the first plainly told investigators that they would not have gotten medical care regardless of the seriousness of the illness. In 2009 the Hickmans’ baby died.

In 2009 the first death of a Followers’ child came to trial. It sounded like an easy win for the state with a growth on 15-month-old Ava Worthington’s neck the size of a baseball that cut off her breathing, with Followers performing healing rituals over her the last two days of her life, with 200 Followers in the home when she died, and with parents telling the police they would not have gotten medical care for her regardless of the symptoms.

At trial, however, the Followers claimed that they didn’t think the growth was a serious problem—adults in their family had them, the healing rituals they performed did not indicate awareness of a serious illness—they did those rituals all the time for all kinds of trivial problems, moments before Ava’s death they saw her breathing become easier in response to their rituals so they broke their fast and went into the kitchen to eat, they were totally surprised and shocked by Ava’s death, so shocked in fact that they didn’t know what they were saying to the police.

Nearly every illness ebbs and flows to some extent, and people who are determined that God is on their side and who willfully avoid medical information are always going to seize upon some symptom or change of symptoms as proof that God has given them a miracle. In Ava’s case the change in her breathing meant only that she was close to death.

But the jury believed the parents. The jury forewoman told the media that, given their culture and religion, the parents may have had no awareness that their baby was seriously ill. Mrs. Worthington was acquitted of all charges. Mr. Worthington was acquitted of manslaughter and convicted of second-degree criminal mistreatment. He served less than two months in jail.

The Oregonian newspaper is an excellent source of information about the Followers’ cases and the trials. See

Posted August 1, 2010

Comments are closed.