AP, Feb. 5, 2003
PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Authorities investigating the sudden death of a 9-year-old boy whose father belongs to a religious sect that shuns all medical care said Tuesday that the child died of cancer.
The medical examiner’s office ruled that Benjamin Reinert died a “natural” death on New Year’s Eve from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a disease most children survive if they receive prompt treatment.
Prosecutors plan to review the finding before deciding whether to file charges against the boy’s father, said Cathie Abookire, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Lynne Abraham.
The case drew the attention of the city Department of Human Services even before Benjamin’s death. In the three days before he died, social workers visited the Reinert home twice to check an anonymous tip that the boy wasn’t getting medical care for an injured ankle.
Benjamin’s father, Paul Reinert, is a member of the Faith Tabernacle Congregation, a devout Christian sect whose members believe that only God should heal.
At least 10 children whose parents belonged to the church have died of treatable illnesses in the past 10 years. Several church members have been prosecuted for failing to seek medical care for their dying children.
The cases have put sect members under extra scrutiny by city and state child welfare agencies.
Social workers who visited the Reinert home on Dec. 28 and Dec. 30 said Benjamin appeared to be in discomfort from the ankle injury – suffered in a basketball game – but was otherwise healthy. During the second visit they warned the family that if the ankle didn’t improve, the city would ask a judge to force the child to see a doctor.
The workers didn’t document any of the common symptoms of leukemia, which can include severe fatigue, frequent bruising or bleeding, swollen glands and joint pain, said Liza Rodriguez, a city Department of Human Services spokeswoman.
A man who answered the phone at the Reinert’s Northeast Philadelphia home Tuesday and identified himself as a relative said the family would have no comment on the case.
Acute leukemia is a rapidly progressing cancer that starts in blood-forming tissue, like bone marrow, and causes the production of large numbers of white blood cells.
While the disease is deadly if undetected, about 80 percent of the children who get chemotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia survive.
Doctors said it is unclear whether the boy’s family could have detected the disease if he was seeing a doctor regularly.
Dr. Neal Flomenberg, director of the hematologic malignancies and blood and marrow transplant program at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, said that while it is rare for a child’s parents not to notice symptoms of leukemia, there are cases where the disease isn’t apparent until the patient is very sick.
“I tell my patients that this type of disease is like an iceberg. The bulk of the disease is underwater, and it often doesn’t manifest itself until there are serious problems,” Flomenberg said.
After Benjamin’s death, the Department of Human Services obtained a court order requiring all six of Paul Reinert’s children to be examined by a doctor.
The family complied with the order and all the children are healthy, Rodriguez said.
“They were very happy. They love their father very much. There is no reason, at this point, to remove those children from their family,” she said.
She said the city plans to continue monitoring the children.