Death of child may put Oregon faith healing law to test

The case of a 15-month-old Oregon City girl who died for lack of medical treatment could become the first test of a state law that disallows faith healing at the expense of a child’s life.

Ava Worthington died March 2 at home from bacterial bronchial pneumonia and infection, according to Dr. Christopher Young, a deputy state medical examiner. He said both conditions could have been prevented or treated with antibiotics.

The child’s breathing was further compromised by a benign cyst that had never been medically addressed and could have been removed from her neck, Young said.

Child-abuse detectives recently referred investigative findings to prosecutors, who are evaluating the case in light of a law passed in 1999 after several faith-healing deaths of children.

“This is the first time that they could be taking a shot at interpreting the law,” said state Senate President Peter Courtney, who carried the contentious bill on the Senate floor nearly a decade ago. He said the Worthington case is giving him “flashbacks.”

“Kids were dying. Kids were suffering,” he said. “Kids who have no choice over these things.”

If prosecuted, Ava Worthington’s parents would be the first members of Oregon City’s Followers of Christ, a fundamentalist Christian denomination, to face criminal charges for failing to seek medical treatment for a gravely ill child.

Of dozens of children buried since the 1950s in the Followers of Christ Church cemetery south of Oregon City, at least 21 could have been saved by medical intervention, according to a 1998 analysis by The Oregonian. None of the deaths from that era, including the high-profile case of an 11-year-old boy who died from untreated diabetes, resulted in prosecution.

The Followers of Christ deaths prompted a firestorm in the 1999 state Legislature over religious freedom, parental rights and the state’s responsibility to protect children. After months of debate, legislators passed a compromise bill that emerged in the final days of the session and was quickly signed into law by Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Since the law passed, Courtney and others said they haven’t heard of any Oregon cases involving children who died because their parents chose prayer over medical care. “I really thought we’d resolved it,” he said.

The 1999 law eliminated Oregon’s “spiritual-healing defense” in cases of second-degree manslaughter, first- and second-degree criminal mistreatment and nonpayment of child support.

Greg Horner, Clackamas County chief deputy district attorney, said it’s too early to know what, if any, charges the parents could face. “We are reviewing the case, and our investigation is progressing,” Horner said.

A private family

Horner, along with officials at the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office and the state medical examiner’s office, declined to identify the parents, disclose whether other children are in the home or discuss details of the investigation.

According to property and other public records, Carl Brent Worthington, 28, and Raylene Marie Worthington, 25, own the single-story home in the 21600 block of South Crestview Drive where Ana Worthington died. Attempts to reach the Worthingtons at their home were unsuccessful.

Neighbors up and down the dead-end Oregon City street said they knew something had occurred when at least 100 cars and trucks claimed every parking space on the street for three to four days straight.

“Both before and after her death, folks were down there around the clock,” said Ron Sherk, a 35-year-resident of the quiet neighborhood. “At all hours of the day and night, people just kept coming and going.”

Sherk said he knows many of his neighbors, but he had never seen Ava’s parents outside their house.

“They were very private people,” he said. “But this is terrible. It’s a tragedy, especially since her condition was apparently so very treatable.”

A few doors away, Dick Ellis, another longtime area resident, said he spoke with Ava’s parents three days ago, when he returned their wandering kitten.

“They both seemed very nice and were extremely pleased to get their kitten back,” said Ellis, a retired Clackamas County corrections officer. “I’m not one to judge anyone else, so I can’t really say what should or shouldn’t happen at this point.”

At nearby Carus Cemetery, owned by the Followers of Christ Church, fresh earth marked the spot where Ava was buried. Two large memorial ribbons lay against a fence next to the gravesite. Adjacent to the site is a grave marker for “Baby Boy Worthington,” dated 2001.

Officials declined to comment on how the boy was associated with the family and how he might have died.

Church traditions

The Followers of Christ meet in a beige one-story building marked only by a small, hand-lettered sign near the entrance to a large parking lot.

Although several vehicles were parked in the church’s lot along Molalla Avenue on Friday afternoon, no one answered the doors. Telephone calls to the Followers of Christ also went unanswered.

The Followers of Christ Church came to Oregon early in the 20th century. According to church tradition, when members become ill, fellow worshippers pray and anoint them with oil. Former members say those who seek modern medical remedies are ostracized by the group.

A former church member, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution at his place of employment, still associates with Followers of Christ at work and in the community. He said church members, which he estimated at 2,300, meet Thursday and Sunday nights to sing hymns accompanied by a pianist, with no formal preacher.

The church still practices faith healing, he said, though members became even more secretive after the unwanted attention of the late 1990s and the Legislature’s removal of faith-healing protections.

“It certainly was our fervent hope that changing the laws in 1999 would change the behavior of the Followers of Christ,” said Rita Swan, president of Iowa-based Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty.

She expressed dismay at the thought of parents who rely on prayer to heal children suffering from easily treatable medical conditions:

“It means that they’re very stubborn people who have decided it’s more important to act out their religious beliefs than protect the life of their flesh and blood child.”

Sidebar: Faith healers and Oregon law

1995: Lobbied by the Christian Science Church, legislators introduce a religious defense to Oregon’s homicide statutes, protecting parents who try to heal their children solely with prayer. Parents who could prove to a judge or jury that faith governed their actions became immune from criminal liability, just as others could assert a claim of self-defense or extreme emotional disturbance.

1997: Again at the behest of Christian Scientists, Oregon legislators add religious shields to the state’s first- and second-degree manslaughter statutes.

1998: Citing legal immunities for faith healers, the Clackamas County district attorney declines to prosecute the parents of an 11-year-old diabetic boy who died after the couple withheld medical treatment in favor of prayer. Her decision, which conflicted with the state attorney general’s interpretation of the law, sparked a statewide controversy.

1999: After months of debate, legislators dissolved parents’ legal defense for treating sick children only with prayer. The new law eliminated religious protections in cases of second-degree manslaughter, first- and second-degree criminal mistreatment and nonpayment of child support.

• Original title: Child’s death may put faith law to test

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday March 25, 2008.
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