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.
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.
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.
• 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 ]