Child’s death tests limits of religious freedoms

Maleta and Dewayne Schmidt and their 4-year-old daughter live in a tidy limestone bungalow on a narrow country road 20 miles south of Indianapolis in Johnson County. A pale pink Rose of Sharon bush in full bloom anchors the manicured lawn, which is surrounded by three thick walls of green corn.

Maleta Schmidt answers the knock wearing shorts and a pink halter top, a cordless phone pressed to her ear, her child at her side. A pretty, smiling 29-year-old with pale blonde hair and light-blue eyes, Schmidt is gracious to strangers. Even reporters who show up uninvited.

But no, thank you, she does not wish to talk now. Maybe later with her husband present. She appreciates the stories The Star has done. So perhaps eventually she and Dewayne, 35, will answer questions.

That would be helpful. A lot has happened in the last four years in the Schmidts’ lives — culminating in a grand jury indictment last week — and right now, curiosity and concern about the couple’s beliefs are at a peak.

But this much is clear.

The Schmidts are lifetime, devout members of a small Morgan County church that eschews medical treatment in favor of faith in God’s power to heal.

Last week, they were charged with reckless homicide in the death of their second child, Rhiana Rose Schmidt. She was born last August at home and delivered by a family member.

The baby suffered complications during birth — she was in breech position, and her umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck and arm. She struggled to breathe. The Schmidts called church elders to their home to pray for the child, who died after two days.

Her death, the coroner ruled, was caused by sepsis — an infection of the blood that can be caused by unsanitary delivery conditions. It can be treated with antibiotics.

Their story — really, their case — has the potential to draw national attention. It’s a lightning rod that pits Constitutionally protected religious beliefs against the right of sick children to receive medical care.

No wonder it’s tearing up residents of Johnson and nearby Morgan County. That’s where the Church of the Firstborn is located, in a small, pristine, white building east of Martinsville. It’s worth noting that the parking lot contains two parking signs for the disabled and a wheelchair ramp — a clear indication that, at least for some members, faith did not overcome infirmity. If that seems callow, it’s a reality that has been noted by others. Johnson County Prosecutor Lance Hamner — who calls the case “heart-rending” — says some church members do receive dental and vision care provided by two local physicians. So why, he wonders, wouldn’t the Schmidts seek medical aid, in addition to prayers, for their newborn?

Hamner carefully weighed the case before taking it to a grand jury. “We went into it believing there was a distinct possibility the child would have survived had medical attention been sought. We want to protect all children.”

Johnson County Sheriff’s Lt. Mike McElwain investigated the baby’s death. He says the Schmidts are decent, kind people who first drew police attention nearly five years ago. Maleta Schmidt was pregnant with their first child. She fell ill with kidney problems and was in and out of consciousness at her home. Somebody tipped police off, and she was rushed to the hospital.

Thanks to modern medicine, she and her premature firstborn survived in 1999.

But last August was different. A baby died. It never should have happened.

Read more of Ruth Holladay’s columns

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above), USA
July 8, 2004 Column
Ruth Holloday

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday July 9, 2004.
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