Parents plead guilty in faith healing death; sentenced to probation

A couple charged with manslaughter in the faith-healing death of their 16-year old son, Austin Sprout, were sentenced Tuesday.

Brandi and Russel Bellew pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide charges and were sentenced to five years probation after reaching a plea deal with prosecutors.

Local TV station KVAL reports

Sprout died after his appendix burst in December. Lane County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested Brandi and Russel Bellew (Sprout’s mother and step-father) in February after a seven-week investigation into the death.

“The investigation has determined that medical professionals believe that the illness he suffered was treatable if he had been provided medical care,” said Capt. Byron Trapp from Lane County Sheriff’s Office.

The Bellews are members of the “general assembly and church of the firstborn“, a church that believes in healing through faith and prayer rather than seeking medical care.

“That is what the arrests are based on, is the withholding of medical care in this case that allowed Austin to die.” Capt. Trapp said.

Theologically the General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn — a network of network of more than 100 small, Pentecostal churches in 20 US states — is a cult of Christianity due to its doctrinal deviations from the essential teachings of the Christian faith. Its extremist teachings on faith healing are un-biblical.

Largely in response to a series of preventable ‘faith-healing’ deaths at a similar denomination, Followers of Christ Church, the Oregon legislature changed the law regarding faith healing.

House Bill 2721, which went into law June 9, 2011, eliminates reliance on spiritual treatment as defense to certain crimes in which victim is under 18 years of age. Effectively it means a reliance on faith healing can no longer be used as a defense against manslaughter charges.

KVAL says that over the past seven months the District Attorney’s office has worked with General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn church leaders to draft a plan on how to educate the congregation about the law.

According to Eugene, Oregon TV station KMRT, Assistant District Attorney Erik Hasselman said

“It’s tragic that this young man died under these circumstances but we’re certainly hoping given this resolution, the education piece, that we’ve done with this congregation, that this is unlikely to ever happen again,” said Hasselman.

He added that if a minor dies under the belief of faith healing, manslaughter charges will follow through and severe consequences will follow. Oregon law was recently amended to this matter, not allowing legal exemption due to religious beliefs.

Hasselman wrote and sent a letter to the congregation, too, saying in part, “There is no exception for the failure to provide medical attention or care to children because of religious beliefs.” It also said, “While religious beliefs are protected by law, a person’s action or inaction based on those beliefs is not always protected.” At the end of the letter, there was a list of emergency phone numbers.

According to the Register-Guard, Hasselman said in court that church members have been receptive to the outreach.

“This is not a denomination that feels that its faith is at odds with the laws of the community,” he said. About 60 families attend the church in Pleasant Hill.

After the Bellews were arrested, last February, their six remaining children were placed in temporary state custody. In April they became wards of the state.

The Register-Guard says

Brandi Bellew, 36, and her 40-year-old husband each spent four days in jail following their arrests. Family members bailed them out, but a jail release agreement ordered them to live apart and not speak to each other until the criminal matter played out in court.

The Bellews have been allowed in recent months to take turns caring for their surviving children, under a court-approved arrangement that required them to closely monitor the youngsters’ health needs while being supervised by a state-appointed “safety service provider.”

KMTR reports that as part of their plea agreement the Bellows have agreed that they will continue to cooperate and check in with the Department of Human Services and promise to seek medical assistance for their remaining six children as necessary.

JaLea and Greg Swezey

In February two parents in Carlton, Washington — members of a church that is part of the General Assemblies and Church of the First Born network — were charged with second-degree murder in the faith healing death of their 17-year-old son, Zachary Swezey.

In May JaLea and Greg Swezey were acquitted on the murder charges, but were told they could still face retrial for manslaughter. In June agreed to accept a plea deal that spared them jail time but holds them responsible for their teenage son’s death after they failed to call a doctor.

Faith Healing
• The term ‘faith healing’ refers to healing that occurs supernaturally — as the result of prayer rather than the use of medicines or the involvement of physicians or other medical care.

• But while faith healings do take place today just as they did in the early Christian church, the teachings of some churches, movements and individuals on this subject amount to spiritual abuse.

• Legitimate churches and movements do not equal using drugs or receiving proper medical attention with unbelief, insufficient faith, or otherwise sinning against God.

Oregon House unanimously votes to end faith healing exception

House Bill 2721 “Eliminates reliance on spiritual treatment as defense to certain crimes in which victim is under 18 years of age” [Full text PDF file]

Children of parents charged in faith healing death of son become wards of the state

Six siblings in Creswell, Oregon, became wards of the state Monday as their parents await trial in connection with the death of their teenage son, who died in December after the couple allegedly chose prayer over medical care for his undisclosed treatable ailment.

The Register-Guard reports

Brandi and Russel Bellew face second-degree manslaughter charges in the death of 16-year-old Austin Sprout. But they may continue to care for their remaining children under a state-supervised “in-home safety plan,” Lane County Circuit Juvenile Court Judge Eveleen Henry also ruled in a brief afternoon hearing.

Terms of that plan include the presence of a state-approved “safety provider,” immediate notification of the state Department of Human Services if any of the children has “medical symptoms, illness or injury” and calling 911 if any medical emergency arises.

The family attends the General Assembly and the Church of the First Born in Pleasant Hill, which generally believes in using prayer instead of medical care to treat illnesses. The safety monitor, Del McCracken, is a fellow church member, but “believes in seeking medical care and advocates for the children to have medical care,” the plan states.

The Bellews must also take turns being with the children, because they are forbidden contact with each other under terms of their pre-trial release from jail. Court records show that Russel Bellew, 39, is living in Springfield, while Brandi Bellew, 36, is living in the couple’s Creswell house. His attorney, Bob Schrank, told Henry that Russel Bellew agreed that all the children should remain in their Creswell home.

The children are a blended family, created when Brandi and Russel Bellew married after both were widowed. […]

In their only objections during the hearing, Schrank and Brandi Bellew’s lawyer, Hugh Duvall, challenged as unnecessary the state’s request that both parents undergo a comprehensive psychological exam.

But Lane County Deputy District Attorney Lisa Christon said the state had a solid basis for seeking the exams.

“By no means are we suggesting that these parents are crazy,” she said. “But we are asking the family to make a significant, life-changing decision about a practice (faith-healing) they have long upheld. We want a professional opinion that they are able to do that.”

Henry ordered the exams, but allowed the couple to delay them until their criminal case is resolved.

‘Faith Healing Bill’

In June, 2011, the governor of Oregon signed into law House Bill 2721, which “Eliminates reliance on spiritual treatment as defense to certain crimes in which victim is under 18 years of age.”

The bill had been introduced in response to the ongoing series of preventable deaths in another ‘faith healing’ congregation, the Followers of Christ church.

House Bill 2721 “Eliminates reliance on spiritual treatment as defense to certain crimes in which victim is under 18 years of age” [Full text PDF file] Signed into law, June 9, 2011
Research resources on faith healing
Online book: Churches That Abuse