Infant dies after parents reject aid

A Johnson County infant less than 2 days old died Tuesday at her parents’ home of a treatable infection, after her parents failed to seek medical treatment during or following her birth.

Parents of Rhiana Rose Schmidt, the deceased infant, are members of a Morgantown-area church that advocates faith healing instead of medical intervention.

The Johnson County Sheriff’s Department and the county coroner are investigating the death. Preliminary autopsy reports show the girl died of puerperal sepsis, a general infection acquired at birth and typically treated with antibiotics.

The infant’s death was the third such death involving untreated children at the General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn.

Rhiana was born early Sunday morning at the home of her parents, DeWayne F. and Maleta K. Schmidt. The infant had difficulty breathing at times until her death on Tuesday morning. Elders at the church were called to the parents’ home in the 1500 block of West State Road 44 to pray for the child, but medical treatment was not sought.

The family knew the baby was ill, sheriff’s Lt. Mike McElwain said, but they believe it is wrong to rely on medicine over God’s will.

“They’re very cooperative,” McElwain said. “They’re very nice people. They just don’t believe in medical treatment.”

Investigators have not found any criminal intent among caregivers to harm the infant.

“It is a fine line between what we can do in reference to religious beliefs and the child,” McElwain said.

They are also concerned about the health of the baby’s mother, Maleta Schmidt. She did not seek a doctor’s care during her pregnancy or delivery. The infection Rhiana acquired may have been transferred from the mother. Chief Deputy Coroner Dave Lutz advised the woman to seek medical attention Tuesday, but she will not go to a doctor, McElwain said.

“They said, ‘We’ll just pray for her.’ That’s their belief,” McElwain said.

The baby’s father told sheriff’s deputies that the mother’s cousin was visiting from out of state and acted as a midwife during the delivery. She has been questioned briefly by investigators.

The birth was a breech birth, meaning the baby wasn’t positioned to be born headfirst. The cousin found that the baby’s umbilical cord was tightly wrapped around its arm and neck twice, but it was cut and removed.

The birth continued as normal in the family’s home, according to a sheriff’s department report, but the baby had trouble breathing. Rhiana appeared to recover soon, the family told investigators.

On Monday afternoon, the baby again had respiratory problems, and elders of the church were called to the home to pray for the infant’s recovery. The baby again appeared to recover, the report said.

But later that night, Rhiana again struggled to breathe. She died at 12:25 a.m., less than 43 hours after her birth.

The family did try to contact Johnson County Coroner Dr. Charles Shufflebarger, but they couldn’t locate a telephone number and instead contacted Clark-Meredith Funeral Home in Morgantown. The funeral home told the family to call the sheriff’s department.

An autopsy was performed Tuesday at Indiana University Medical Center.

The baby weighed 7 pounds and was 21 inches long at birth. It is believed that the baby was at or near full term. Investigators don’t know how long the mother had been in labor before giving birth.

If Schmidt was in labor for an extended period of time without medical care, she could have developed an infection. Such an infection can also be caused by unsanitary conditions during the delivery.

A common cause of sepsis is a staph infection. If it was a staph infection, it could have been treated with penicillin or another antibiotic if detected early enough, investigators said.

Investigators are awaiting pathology and other test results from the autopsy. They will likely not be able to determine exactly how Rhiana contracted the infection, Shufflebarger said.

Sheriff’s deputies and Child Protection Services caseworkers are checking the health of the couple’s other child, a 4-year-old.

A man at the Schmidt residence near Franklin on Friday said the family had no comment.

An acquaintance of the family, Franklin College Professor David Carlson, recalled Maleta Schmidt as an exceptionally bright student in his religion courses. She had a strong religious faith but belonged to a sorority and did not fit the stereotype of a closed-minded fundamentalist, he said.

“Maleta was one of the brightest students I’ve had in my 25 years here, excellent writer, good thinker,” said Carlson, who attended the Schmidts’ wedding at the church near Morgantown. “I have not found her judgmental at all.”

Staff writer Scott Hall also contributed to this story.

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