IN FOCUS: Washington state bill introduced to curb child faith-deaths

   UPDATE: Though passed by two committees, the Senate failed to bring SB6295 to the floor for a vote; the bill is dead for this year. The sponsor vows to introduce the bill again in the next session when its chances may well be better. Thanks to all who supported this measure. 2/18/2014

Recent news reports:
   Faith-healing exemption gets scrutiny 2/6/2014
   No faith healing instead of medical care for kids 1/17/2014

Washington citizens: Let your legislators hear from you
         For a limited time the hearing can be viewed at Human Services Committee hearing. The bill now needs to be passed on the floor by 5PM, Feb. 18. Expressions of support to your state Senators are especially helpful at this time.

   Find your legislator
   Read SB 6295
   Comment on SB 6295 (Your comments will be viewable only by legislators. The public will not be able to see them.)

Support SB6295: Protect Washington children from medical neglect

Washington has laws that allow some parents with religious objections to medical care to withhold it from sick children. Washington has had some children die because of religious beliefs against medical care, and Idaho and Oregon have had hundreds of children die because of such beliefs. “Faith deaths” in Washington have not reached the dismal totals of its neighbors, but surely citizens and legislators would agree that even one preventable death of a child is too many. Most such deaths likely do not come to light, but our organization, CHILD, can on request provide documentation of several Washington cases.

Senator Mark Mullet has introduced SB6295, which seeks to prevent any such deaths. The bill replaces exemptions to criminal mistreatment and the duty to report abuse and neglect with a provision that protects all minority religious and cultural practices from inappropriate state intervention while protecting all children equally from abuse and neglect.

SB6295 repeals Revised Code of Washington 9A.42.005, which states:

It is the intent of the legislature that a person who, in good faith, is furnished
Christian Science treatment by a duly accredited Christian Science practitioner in
lieu of medical care is not considered deprived of medically necessary health care
or abandoned.
[enacted in 1997]

It is astonishing that Washington has a law explicitly allowing members of one church and one church only to commit criminal mistreatment of children and dependent adults. Indeed, this language was not in the health care bills as passed by either the House or Senate. No public hearings were held on it. No standing committee voted on it. Instead, a conference committee of six legislators tasked with reconciling House and Senate bills added this religious exemption to criminal mistreatment. When the conference committee sent its reconciled bill to the House and Senate, it was accepted pro forma.

Christian Science “treatment” consists only of prayer in an argumentative affirmation-and-denial style, usually offered by a Christian Science practitioner (spiritual healer), who charges a fee for the prayer. The practitioners have no verifiable evidence that their methods heal disease. Nor do they have any medical training. They believe disease is unreal because God didn’t make it and disease will disappear when they persuade themselves and their “patients” of its unreality.

RCW 9A.42.005 designates Christian Science treatment as “medically necessary health care” for children sick with diabetes, meningitis, or cancer. It exempts the parents from a duty to provide real medical care. It is a death sentence for children.

RCW 9A.42.005 is also discriminatory in privileging only one church, confusing not only parents but courts and prosecutors as well. In 2012 Okanogan County Church of the Firstborn parents were charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter for not getting medical care when their 17-year-old son, Zachery Swezey, was dying of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. The parents tried to raise RCW 9A.42.005 as a defense. Their lawyers wrote, “The discrimination in Washington law between . . . two religions has the constitutionally prohibited effect of providing favoritism and/or immunity for members of the Christian Science church over members of The Church of the First Born for identical conduct.”

The judge ruled against them, holding that Christian Science practitioners were mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect and were licensed by the state, and therefore the legislature may have had “a rational basis” for giving Christian Scientists and not Church of the Firstborners a religious defense to felonies. The defense attorney said RCW 9A.42.005 was “bizarre” and needed to be revisited by the legislature, but his clients would plead guilty to a lesser charge and not appeal. The prosecutor also believes RCW9A.42.005 is wrong.

The judge’s ruling was factually wrong in that Christian Science practitioners are not state-licensed. Furthermore, we doubt they report medical neglect of children to child protection services. We note that their public relations manager for Washington refused to answer when the press asked him if the church practitioners report neglect. In thirty years of studying these issues, CHILD has never found a case of a practitioner reporting medical neglect to child protection services.

SB6295 also repeals RCW 26.44.020(16), which states:

[A] person who is being furnished Christian Science treatment by a duly accredited Christian Science practitioner shall not be considered, for that reason alone, a neglected person for the purposes of this chapter.

The exemption appears in a chapter on the duty to report abuse and neglect of children. It gives the impression that children getting Christian Science prayer treatments in lieu of medical care are not neglected and therefore should not be reported to child protection services.

SB6295 adds a provision in the reporting chapter, which is fairer, clearer, and far more protective of children than current law. It states:

Cultural and religious child-rearing practices and beliefs which differ from general community standards do not, in and of themselves, create a duty to report under this section unless there is reasonable cause to believe the practices and beliefs pose a danger to the child’s health, welfare, or safety.

This provision protects all minorities from state intrusion when the child is not at substantial risk, while making clear that real dangers to a child’s health should be reported regardless of the parents’ religious beliefs. It is consonant with the 2010 findings of Congress, which recommended that child protection systems “[recognize] the diversity of ethnic, cultural, and religious beliefs and traditions that may impact child rearing patterns, while not allowing the differences in those beliefs and traditions to enable abuse or neglect.” S.38

Senator Mullet’s bill will give Washington children equal protection of the law. It will establish that all parents have a duty to provide their children with the necessities of life regardless of their religious beliefs and that all children whose health, safety or welfare are endangered should be reported to child protection services while protecting all minorities from unwarranted state intrusion.

SB6295 is timely because of the Swezey case, which exposed the unfairness of currentlaw, and because of the large number of children who have died in Idaho and Oregon in sects with religious beliefs against medical care. In 2011 Oregon repealed all of its religious exemptions from providing medical care for sick children. This appears to have been very effective in stopping the Oregon Followers of Christ from withholding medical care from their children, while in Idaho, which has a religious defense to manslaughter, many Followers of Christ children continue to die without medical care. Indeed, 177 or 30% of the graves in one cemetery used by the Idaho Followers of Christ are of children and stillborns.

Please vote for SB6295 and give Washington children equal protection of the law.

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