Three sets of parents face prosecution in the death of their children
WESTON, Wis. — Kara Neumann, 11, had grown so weak that she could not walk or speak. Her parents, who believe that God alone has the ability to heal the sick, prayed for her recovery but did not take her to a doctor.
After an aunt from California called the sheriff’s department here, frantically pleading that the sick child be rescued, an ambulance arrived at the Neumann’s rural home on the outskirts of Wausau and rushed Kara to the hospital. She was pronounced dead on arrival.
The county coroner ruled that she had died from diabetic ketoacidosis resulting from undiagnosed and untreated juvenile diabetes. The condition occurs when the body fails to produce insulin, which leads to severe dehydration and impairment of muscle, lung and heart function.
About a month after Kara’s death last March, the Marathon County state attorney, Jill Falstad, brought charges of reckless endangerment against her parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann. Despite the Neumanns’ claim that the charges violated their constitutional right to religious freedom, Judge Vincent Howard of Marathon County Circuit Court ordered Ms. Neumann to stand trial on May 14, and Mr. Neumann on June 23. If convicted, each faces up to 25 years in prison.
About 300 children have died in the United States in the last 25 years after medical care was withheld on religious grounds, said Rita Swan, executive director of Children’s Health Care Is a Legal Duty, a group based in Iowa that advocates punishment for parents who do not seek medical help when their children need it. Criminal codes in 30 states, including Wisconsin, provide some form of protection for practitioners of faith healing in cases of child neglect and other matters, protection that Ms. Swan’s group opposes.
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Shawn Peters, the author of three books on religion and the law, including “When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children and the Law” (Oxford, 2007), said the outcome of the Neumann case was likely to set an important precedent.
“The laws around the country are pretty unsettled,” said Mr. Peters, who teaches religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and has been consulted by prosecutors and defense lawyers in the case.
In the last year, two other sets of parents, both in Oregon, were criminally charged because they had not sought medical care for their children on the ground that to do so would have violated their belief in faith healing. One couple were charged with manslaughter in the death of their 15-month-old daughter, who died of pneumonia last March. The other couple were charged with criminally negligent homicide in the death of their 16-year-old son, who died from complications of a urinary tract infection that was severely painful and easily treatable.
“Many types of abuses of children are motivated by rigid belief systems,” including severe corporal punishment, said Ms. Swan, a former Christian Scientist whose 16-month-old son, Matthew, died after she postponed taking him to a hospital for treatment of what proved to be meningitis. “We learned the hard way.”
All states give social service authorities the right to go into homes and petition for the removal of children, Ms. Swan said, but cases involving medical care often go unnoticed until too late. Parents who believe in faith healing, she said, may feel threatened by religious authorities who oppose medical treatment. Recalling her own experience, she said, “we knew that once we went to the doctor, we’d be cut off from God.”
The Neumanns, who had operated a coffee shop, Monkey Mo’s, in this middle-class suburb in the North Woods, are known locally as followers of an online faith outreach group called Unleavened Bread Ministries, run by a preacher, David Eells. The site shares stories of faith healing and talks about the end of the world.
An essay on the site signed Pastor Bob states that the Bible calls for healing by faith alone. “Jesus never sent anyone to a doctor or a hospital,” the essay says. “Jesus offered healing by one means only! Healing was by faith.”
A link from the site, helptheneumanns.com, asserts that the couple is being persecuted and “charged with the crime of praying.” The site also allows people to contribute to a legal fund for the Neumanns.