OREGON CITY — Until the faith-healing death of an Oregon City girl this month, members of the Followers of Christ Church appear to have lost just one child to sickness since 1999, when Oregon banned parents from treating gravely ill children solely with prayer.
Tyler Duane Shaw of Oregon City died in 2003, three days short of his second birthday, of sudden complications from a throat infection. “His death was not considered to be anything but a natural death that had no indications of abuse or neglect,” said Dr. Clifford Nelson, deputy state medical examiner.
Church members declined to discuss religious beliefs and practices with The Oregonian. But child abuse detectives, medical examiners and many other Clackamas County officials said they have seen signs of positive change in the church since the late 1990s, when several Followers of Christ children died from medically treatable conditions.
Since the new laws took effect in 1999, said child abuse Detective Jeff Green of the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, “We haven’t seen any cases of significant medical neglect . . . until now.”
Fifteen-month-old Ava Worthington died at home March 2 of bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection that could have been treated with antibiotics, according to the state medical examiner’s office.
On Friday, a Clackamas County grand jury indicted her parents, Carl Brent and Raylene Worthington, on charges of second-degree manslaughter and criminal mistreatment.
Ava Worthington’s death brought back memories of Followers of Christ children who suffered and died before Oregon removed religious exemptions from state child abuse and homicide laws.
Tyler Shaw’s sister, 51/2-month-old Valarie Lynn Shaw, was one of three Followers of Christ children who died in 1997 and 1998 after parents tried to heal them with prayer. The deaths, all from medically treatable conditions, sparked a firestorm among state legislators, who promptly struck down legal shields for faith-healing parents.
Before the law changed, church members who got in traffic accidents would take injured children home, rather than to the hospital, leaving police frustrated but powerless to intervene, Green said.
In the two years after the law passed, detectives responded to two cases of sick or injured Followers of Christ children, Green said. One child had Crohn’s disease and the other had a broken arm, which church members had tried to set themselves. In both cases, parents complied without protest when police insisted that they take their children to licensed physicians.
Green said that until this month’s death of Ava Worthington, he hadn’t heard of any cases over the past nine years in which a Followers of Christ child might have died because of medical neglect.
Ava Worthington’s parents also lost a baby boy in August 2001, but the death investigation was closed after family members told police the child was stillborn. Several other Followers of Christ children have also been stillborn or died during home births in recent years, but none of the investigated deaths resulted in criminal charges.
“They either had gotten the point, or there hadn’t been anything serious enough to rise to this level of involvement,” Green said.
The Clackamas County district attorney’s office formally reached out to Followers of Christ leaders at least twice in the past decade to make sure they understood legal requirements for pediatric medical care.
In August 1999, then-District Attorney Terry Gustafson sent a letter to the church about the new laws.
In June 2004, four or five Followers of Christ leaders met with prosecutors, police and medical examiner officials. Sitting in the district attorney’s law library, the leaders listened as officials explained parental responsibilities and the investigative procedures that follow the death of a child, said Greg Horner, chief deputy district attorney, who attended the meeting.
The leaders pledged to post a memo in their church, explaining to the Followers of Christ what the law required.
“They were polite,” Horner said. “They were receptive. They understood.”
There hasn’t been a similar meeting since 2004, and Horner said his office hasn’t considered one. “I’ve been focusing on what’s right ahead of us,” he said, referring to the Worthington case.
The Oregon City church, which is not associated with a mainstream denomination, traces its origins to the faith-healing Pentecostal movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. After several splits over religious doctrine, Walter T. White, the charismatic nephew of one of the early founders, brought a splinter group to Oregon in the 1930s.
White died in 1969, and the last of his ordained elders died in 1986, but church members continue to meet Thursdays and Sundays in a beige one-story building marked only by a hand-lettered sign. Followers of Christ decline to speak publicly about their church, and a reporter who visited the church Thursday was turned away.
For decades, the close-knit and private Followers of Christ have shunned members who strayed from the flock. According to Valarie Shaw’s 60-year-old great uncle, Darrell Shaw of Milwaukie, that’s what they did after he left the church some 25 years ago, which makes it hard for him to know how they’re handling sick kids these days.
“They didn’t even call me when my parents passed away,” he said.
Darrell Shaw left the church long before his niece died of a massive infection. He said a police officer gave him the grim news that emergency medical care could have saved her life.
When legislators sent a strong message to faith-healing parents in 1999, he said it was a relief.
“I thought they would probably take their kids to the doctor. They don’t believe in breaking the law,” he said.
“I figured, at least the kids will be safe now.”
Sidebar: Followers of Christ
Child and infant burials at the Followers of Christ Church cemetery since 1999, when Oregon cracked down on faith-healing deaths of children. Names with one date indicate infants who were stillborn or died shortly after birth. Under Oregon law, stillbirths do not require a death investigation.
- Baby girl Pedracini, Oct. 18, 2000: Investigated by Oregon City police; family members told police she was stillborn.
- Michael Jewell Conley, June 1, 2001: No recorded police investigation.
- Baby boy Worthington, Aug. 29, 2001: Investigated by Oregon City police; family members told police he was stillborn and three months premature. (The boy’s parents, Raylene and Carl Brent Worthington, were indicted in the March 2 death of 15-month-old daughter Ava, who died of what the medical examiner called treatable conditions.)
- Tyler Duane Shaw, Feb. 3, 2001-Jan. 31, 2003: Clackamas County sheriff suspended investigation after medical examiner ruled Tyler’s death natural, with no evidence of neglect. (Tyler’s sister Valarie died Jan. 1, 1998, from what a medical examiner called treatable conditions.)
- Baby girl Hansen, Aug. 28, 2003: No recorded police investigation.
- Julia Lynn Hickman, Feb. 16, 2006: Clackamas County sheriff’s investigation determined she died of natural causes shortly after birth.
- – Sources: Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, Oregon City Police Department, Clackamas County and state medical examiner