A 16-month-old child who died at home this month in Clackamas County could easily have been saved by basic medical treatment, according to the state medical examiner’s office.
Dr. Christopher Young, a deputy state medical examiner, said today that Ava Worthington died from bacterial bronchial pneumonia and sepsis, both easily treatable with antibiotics.
Young said the infant’s breathing was further compromised by a benign cystic mass in her neck, a mass that had never been medically addressed and could have been removed.
“It had enlarged to the point that it was pressing down on her esophagus,” Young said. Because of the restricted airway, he said, the child could not cough easily to clear her lungs.
Clackamas County sheriff’s deputies investigated the March 2 death and referred the case to the district attorney’s office for consideration of criminal prosecution, according to Detective Jim Strovink, a sheriff’s spokesman.
Greg Horner, Clackamas County chief deputy district attorney, said if his office determines no crime has been committed, the case will dropped. Otherwise, it will be turned over to a grand jury.
“We are reviewing the case and our investigation is progressing,” Horner said.
According to Young, the child’s parents are members of Followers of Christ, an Oregon City church that practices spiritual healing rather than seeking medical treatment, even when children become gravely ill.
A June 1998 investigation by The Oregonian found that of the 78 children buried in the church’s cemetery since 1955, 21 died from treatable diseases. The Followers of Christ came under intense scrutiny in 1997 and 1998, when three children died after their parents denied them basic medical care. One of them, 11-year-old Bo Phillips, had diabetes.
Police saw Phillips’ death as a clear case of abuse, because the state medical examiner ruled that the disease was easily treatable. But Clackamas County’s district attorney at the time, Terry Gustafson, said she could not prosecute Phillips’ parents because of ambiguity in state law.
Gustafson’s remarks set off a firestorm of debate when the state legislature convened in January 1999.
After arguments over religious freedom, parental rights and the state’s responsibility to protect children, a compromise bill emerged in the final days of the session and was quickly signed into law.
The new law, which will apply if criminal charges are filed in the Worthington case, eliminated the spiritual healing defense in cases of second-degree manslaughter, first- and second-degree criminal mistreatment and nonpayment of child support.
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