Living on a Prayer: Why Does God Kill So Many Children in Idaho?
Faith-healing parents believe prayer is the only acceptable treatment in matters of health, even if it means letting their children die. In Idaho, they're immune from prosecution, and the body count is rising
On Feb. 5, 2013, just weeks before her 13th birthday, Syble Rossiter was at home in Albany, Oregon, gasping for breath and in critical condition. For most of the afternoon, her family had watched as she vomited violently and lost control of her bowels, eventually becoming so weak she could no longer stand. In the hours leading up to her final, fevered breaths, as Syble slowly drifted into unconsciousness and ultimately death, her parents never called a doctor or rushed her to an emergency room. As members of the General Assembly Church of the First Born, a faith-healing Christian sect, they believed that seeking medical help for their daughter would be a sign of spiritual weakness and an affront against God’s will. Instead, Travis and Wenona Rossiter tried to cure her with prayer.
Inside the Linn County Courthouse this month, the Rossiters and their defense attorneys watched silently as prosecutor Keith Stein presented images of Syble that authorities had taken at the crime scene. Gaunt and pale, the girl’s body was seated upright on her family’s living room couch in a red shirt and a pair of urine-soaked jeans. Her eyes were sunken, and her body looked dehydrated. From the witness stand, Dr. Gary Goby, the county’s medical examiner, told the jury that Syble had died from complications of a chronic and undiagnosed case of Type 1 diabetes, adding that a simple treatment of insulin and fluids could have saved her life.
Because of their inaction, the prosecutor argued, Travis and Wenona Rossiter were directly responsible for their daughter’s death. “This case is not about their religion,” he told the jurors. “It’s about the minimum standard of medical care that our laws will tolerate when it comes to our children.” The Rossiters’ defense lawyers claimed that the family had thought she only had the flu, but the jury was ultimately unmoved. Last week, the Rossiters were convicted of first- and second-degree manslaughter, which in Oregon carries a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.
The verdict is the latest in a string of convictions of faith healers who endanger their children in Oregon, where officials have been empowered by some of the strictest laws in the country since 2011, when the state eliminated the last of its religious-defense statutes. Oregon has successfully prosecuted three similar cases in the last three years, putting mothers and fathers in jail on charges of criminal mistreatment, negligent homicide and manslaughter, and sending a message to other faith-healing families that they must seek medical care for their children.
Just across the state line in Idaho, however, there are no such deterrents. During the same period of time, at least 12 children have died at the hands of faith-healing parents in the state, yet not a single charge has been filed. In Idaho, authorities do not investigate or prosecute faith-healing deaths, which occur largely without scrutiny from the public or media. Of the dozen documented cases in the last three years—and there are likely many more that have gone unreported—all were members of the Followers of Christ, a faith-healing group with a doctrine nearly identical to the Church of the First Born. The Followers are also active in Oregon, where they gained notoriety in the 1990s after a series of high-profile child deaths.
The stark contrast over a span of a few highway miles is not lost on Linda Martin, an Idaho native and former member of the Followers of Christ who attended the Rossiters’ trial in Oregon.
“When they described the way Syble was found, I immediately knew what had transpired the night she died,” says Martin, who moved to Oregon in 1999 but maintained contact with members of her church. “It was like watching a Followers death scene all over again. I hate that sick feeling of knowing what’s going to come next.”
To Martin, what’s going on in Idaho “makes Oregon look like a bunch of boy scouts.” Last year, after watching too many children needlessly suffer and die, Martin broke her silence about the unpunished deaths in Idaho, and she has since become one of the few activists devoted to the issue there. Though it would lead to her being shunned by family and friends, she reached out to a reporter who had covered the Followers in Oregon, Dan Tilkin of Portland’s KATU News, and urged him to dig further in Idaho. The investigation led to the Peaceful Valley Cemetery outside of Boise, where Tilkin made the startling discovery that among the 553 marked graves at the cemetery, 144 appeared to be those of children, more than 25 percent.
Martin says a more extensive review of burial records at Peaceful Valley using the Idaho State Archives, obituaries and interviews with family and next of kin shows that among the 604 people buried at the cemetery, including unmarked graves, 208 are children, which means the figure is closer to 35 percent. Those findings are documented on the Find a Grave website, an online database of cemetery records. While the graves of deceased children in the cemetery date back to 1905, 149 children, more than 70 percent, were buried there in or after 1972, the year that Idaho enacted a law providing a religious defense to manslaughter.
Autopsy records show that all 11 Followers children buried in Peaceful Valley since 2011 succumbed to medically preventable conditions. There were infants who slowly perished from sepsis, respiratory failure and diabetes, and teens who battled pneumonia for weeks. One 16-year-old, Pamela Eells, drowned in her own fluids after suffering from a bone infection commonly associated with leukemia, according to her coroner’s report. The medical examiner in that case, Dr. Charles Garrison, said he found it inexplicable “to comprehend how anyone can watch a child die and do nothing.”
Perhaps worst of all was the fate of 15-year-old Arrian Granden, whose family stood by for three days in 2012 as their daughter suffered fits of vomiting and diarrhea. Arrian’s esophagus eventually ruptured from her retching, which was brought on by an easily treatable case of food poisoning. She gradually fell unconscious before going into cardiac arrest. A 205-word case summary from the Canyon County Coroner’s Office is the only official record of her death.
Nearly every state includes some form of religious exemption from charges against faith-healing parents in its criminal or civil codes. Most of these laws are remnants of a decision by the federal government in the 1970s—granted at the urging of the Christian Science Church, the nation’s largest faith-healing denomination—to withhold funding for child abuse programs in states that did not enact some form of religious immunity for parents who favored spiritual healing over medical care. While the federal government later rescinded its regulation, most states left the laws in place.
Currently, 32 states, including Idaho, provide a religious defense to felony or misdemeanor crimes specifically against children, including neglect, endangerment and abuse, according to state statutes compiled by Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD), a national advocacy group. There are 38 states that provide religious exemptions in their civil codes on child abuse and neglect, which can prevent Child Protective Services from investigating and monitoring cases of religion-based medical neglect and discourage reporting.
Of the states that still provide a religious defense to felonies against children, Idaho remains in a league of its own. It is one of only six states that provide a religious exemption to manslaughter, negligent homicide or capital murder (the others being Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio and West Virginia). But of those six, it is the only state where children are known to have died at the hands of faith-healing parents in the last 20 years. Rita Swan, CHILD’s co-founder, describes Idaho as “the worst in the country,” and she attributes the state’s high number of deaths to its overreaching religious exemption laws, which were enacted in 1972.
Swan and other child advocates argue that Idaho’s laws, and those like them, are in direct contradiction with the Supreme Court’s 1944 decision in Prince v. Massachusetts, which ruled that parental authority cannot jeopardize a child’s welfare, even in cases of religious expression. “The right to practice religion freely,” the court concluded, “does not include liberty to expose…[a] child…to ill health or death.”
“Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves,” the decision continued. “But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children.”
Idaho’s religious exemption law describes prayer as a spiritual “treatment” that can act as a legal substitute for medical care. In other words, it can’t be neglect if the child is receiving treatment, even if that treatment consists exclusively of asking God for a miracle. What’s more absurd, according to Swan, is that the state’s laws inadvertently promote the most extreme behavior among faith-healing parents because of how they’re written: Parents can lose their religious protections the minute they use any other means of care beyond spiritual treatment to help cure a child.
“If the parent combines prayer with orange juice or a cool bath to bring down a fever,” Swan says, “the parent loses the exemption.”
Yet, because of the profound chilling effect Idaho’s religious exemption laws have had on the authorities who might enforce them, those claims have never been put to the test. Not a single criminal charge has been filed in cases of religion-based medical neglect in the state since legislators enacted the law four decades ago. Boise police declined to even report two faith-healing parents in 2010 after they refused medical care for their critically injured son, citing the religious exemption statute. The following year, Canyon County Coroner Vicki DeGeus-Morris told reporters that she had stopped doing autopsies on children who belonged to the Followers of Christ altogether.
Few with power or political will in Idaho have been compelled to stop the growing body count. With the exception of one local television station in Boise, the revelations, which have been coming to light since last year, attracted scant media attention in the state. Idaho’s largest papers didn’t touch the story, nor did the state’s public radio or alternative weeklies.
Earlier this year, a proposal was introduced in Idaho’s state legislature to amend its religious shield laws, but it never got to the floor. Scott Bedke, the state’s House speaker, prevented the bill from having a hearing. Even the Governor’s Task Force on Children at Risk, a nonpartisan advisory group, declined to support the bill, which became red meat for conservative state legislators who saw it as government intrusion and an assault on religious freedom.
“This is about religious beliefs, the belief God is in charge of whether they live, and God is in charge of whether they die,” said Republican Rep. Christy Perry. “This is about where they go for eternity.”
There is currently no sponsor for a new bill, and the chance of one gaining traction in next year’s legislature is slim. Reached by phone, the original sponsor, Boise Democrat John Gannon, indicates that it’s not exactly on the top of his to-do list. “It’s honestly not something that I’ve thought a lot about lately,” he says.
Bryan Taylor, the lead prosecutor in Canyon County, where Arrian Granden died, would not respond to multiple requests for comment. He has previously stated that his hands are tied by current law. “If they don’t want to have their children go to a doctor, as long as they haven’t caused the injuries, then we don’t really have a leg to stand on in exploring criminal charges,” he told KBOI 2 News.
Outside of Oregon and Idaho, there have been 20 documented faith-healing fatalities of minors since 2008 in 10 different states, including Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania, according to CHILD. But the death count among Followers of Christ puts Idaho well out in front as the deadliest state in the country. That distinction actually once belonged to Oregon, until a highly publicized child death in 1998 ultimately prompted prosecutors and lawmakers to act.
Oregon, like Idaho, had a religious defense to manslaughter on the books when 11-year-old Bo Phillips died from untreated diabetes that year. His family, who were members of the Followers of Christ, prayed over him and anointed his body with oil instead of taking him to a doctor. It was the first time authorities felt they had a clear case of abuse in a faith-healing child death. But the district attorney for the county, Terry Gustafson, declined to prosecute the boy’s parents because of ambiguities in the state law.
Gustafson’s decision triggered public outcry across the state. The Oregonian newspaper in Portland, the state’s largest paper, launched an investigative series on faith-healing deaths, which found that of the 78 children buried in one Followers cemetery in Oregon City since 1955, 21 had died from treatable illnesses. Shortly after, ABC’s 20/20 and Diane Sawyer brought national attention to the state’s faith-healing controversy with a prime-time segment on the Followers. By 1999, legislators had eliminated religious protections in cases of manslaughter and criminal mistreatment.
In 2011, the state eliminated all remaining religious exemptions for denying medical care. Within a few months, Followers of Christ members Timothy and Rebecca Wyland were convicted of criminal mistreatment for allowing a growth the size of a baseball on their infant daughter’s face to go untreated. They were sentenced to 90 days in jail and eventually lost custody of their daughter. While six states have now struck all religious protections for crimes against children, Oregon’s reforms have shown to be the most sweeping in their transformation. With the Rossiters’ conviction, the state has now won every faith-healing child death case it has prosecuted.
Advocates like Martin believe that without publicity and stiff legal repercussions, children will continue to suffer and die at the hands of faith-healing parents in Idaho. And they are praying that they will find a way to make the issue resonate with lawmakers and the public in the state.
“If we can change the laws there, we might be able to give some of these kids a chance at growing up,” says Martin. “The torture of these children has got to stop.”