Tulare couple refused medical help for their girl — in an act of faith
TULARE — The death of a 10-year-old Tulare girl is at the center of a court case that pits religion against the law.
Wesley and Laronda Hamm are facing involuntary manslaughter and child-abuse charges in connection with the March death of their daughter Jessica. The charges were filed in September.
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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.
The Hamms belong to the Church of the Firstborn, whose members refuse medical treatment and shun manmade medicine. According to their members, they believe in faith healing and placing their health in God’s hands.
The Church of the Firstborn traces back to Western frontier settlers and religious figure Brigham Young.
Tulare County authorities filed the charges because there are laws that protect children and insist parents must care for them until they are 18 years old.
Local pastors said faith healing and medical assistance should work together to cure illnesses. They say that while miracles do happen, praying for health should not be the only thing believers do when encountering illnesses.
David Fletcher, a philosophy and ethics professor at Wheaton College, a religious studies college in Illinois, said faith healing is a constant topic in academic debates. He said while freedom of religion is guaranteed, children should still be protected.
And those who fail to protect children should be held accountable, he said.
Origin and definition
According to information on the Web, the Church of the Firstborn was founded in 1836. Mormon leader Brigham Young was present at the founding.
After a brief existence, the Church of the Firstborn went dormant until Jan. 25, 1981, at Saratoga Hot Spring, Utah, according to a Web site.
According to members, Church of the Firstborn in Tulare is made up of 20 families.
One of the church’s beliefs is that prayer will bring health.
“It’s backed up by scriptures,” church member Stoney Porter, said previously. “We believe in praying for the sick and putting our confidence in God.”
Jessica Hamm displayed flu-like symptoms for several days but her parents didn’t call for a doctor, according to authorities.
At one point, Jessica had improved. Court documents say her fever had decreased. But later on the same day, the symptoms returned and she died a few days later.
Throughout Jessica’s last days, her parents didn’t call for medical help. They never took her to a doctor.
Instead, according to the court documents, Laronda Hamm gave her daughter 7UP to soothe her and placed wet rags on her head to treat her fever.
In the documents, Laronda Hamm said she did call several church members to her house to pray for her daughter. Several of those church members were in the home when Jessica died on March 13.
The Hamms are being charged because they failed to provide for their daughter, said William Yoshimoto, a prosecutor with the Tulare County District Attorney’s office.
“Parents have a duty, parents have a responsibility to care for their children according to the law,” he said. “The charges are saying they failed to do that. And as a result, the child died.”
Yoshimoto was assigned the case earlier this week.
Cases involving the death of children are emotionally difficult to prosecute, he said.
“Any time a child dies, everybody feels the pain,” he said.
David Allen, Wesley Hamm’s attorney, didn’t return several phone calls seeking comment.
Pastors at several local churches say they disagree with the Church of the Firstborn philosophy.
“We believe in doctors and medications,” said Kenneth Bowman, a pastor at Jubilee Christian Fellowship. “We believe they’re good.”
Ray Duran, pastor at Vineyard Christian Fellowship, agreed.
“I don’t have a problem with doctors,” he said. “We’re completely comfortable with seeking medicine. We don’t see that as a lack of faith.”
Tim Vink, pastor at Tulare Community Church, said praying and medicine should work together to heal people.
“We look for Jesus as the great physician,” he said.
At First Baptist Church, Bob Metcalf said scriptures give examples of seeking medical help. Metcalf said one of the four writers of the gospel was Luke, a doctor.
“There is nothing that says he surrendered being a doctor,” he said.
Wheaton College professor David Fletcher said faith healing is a biblical idea. Most Christians believe healing comes from prayer and medicine.
“But there is a minority who don’t,” said Fletcher, who teaches ethics. “If you really believe, you shouldn’t be consulting a physician. All you need is prayer.”
“Legal precedence is strong,” he said. “You can’t deny medical treatment to a child.”
Fletcher said prayer alone won’t take care of illnesses. Medical help is needed.
“Prayer alone is not going to take care of a hernia or an infection,” he said.
But Fletcher said the Hamms’ did act ethically.
“If I believe my best resource is prayer, I am acting ethically,” he said. “If I believe prayer is doing better than medicine, I am acting ethically. They are not being unethical. They’re doing what they think is best.”
Beyond ethics, the Hamms’ performance as parents leaves much to be desired, Fletcher said.
“That’s irresponsible parenting. It’s hard to be sympathetic. If you’re going to put your child in danger — that’s too much,” he said.
The court case against the Hamms is not the first one involving members of Church of the Firstborn in Tulare.
In 1995 Harold and Carol Stevens were prosecuted on charges of child endangerment in connection with the death of their 16-year-old daughter.
That trial ended in the jury not being able to reach a verdict. The Stevenses then plead no contest to misdemeanor child endangerment charges to avoid another trial. They were sentenced to three years probation.
Carrie Stevens stopped taking insulin shots to control her diabetes. She died in 1993.
In that case, the prosecution argued the parents’ religious beliefs led to Carrie Stevens’ death.
Countering that argument, defense attorneys said their clients believed in miracles and that Carrie Stevens made the choice to stop taking the medication on her own.