The Oregon couple accused of letting their premature, newborn son die due to their church's refusal to use medical science has been sentenced to six years in prison after being found guilty of second-degree manslaughter.
Dale and Shannon Hickman, members of the controversial Followers of Christ Church, which eschews medicine in favor of prayer, or faith healing, had been found guilty in September in their son's death. The sentence they received Monday was the mandatory minimum for the charge.
The judge in the case also sentenced the couple to three years of probation apiece, making it the longest sentence given to members of the Followers of Christ Church who have been found guilty of failing to provide medical care for their children, reports The Oregonian.
Born two months premature at the couple's home, David Hickman lived for only nine hours before dying. It was apparent that he needed medical care - he was having trouble breathing and looked ashen and listless, The Oregonian reported. But instead of taking David to the hospital, the boy's father anointed him with oil and prayed.
"Why didn't you call 9-1-1 at that moment of crisis?" prosecutor Mike Regan asked.
"Because I was praying," Mr. Hickman said.
Followers of Christ Church has been involved in several cases where sickness and death occurred to children because of their parents' religious beliefs.
Dr. Seth Asser, a pediatrician and children's rights activist who is highly critical of faith-healing churches, claims the Followers of Christ Church and the Church of the First Born, based in Oklahoma, together are responsible for more child deaths than any other group.
According to the Tulsa World, Asser estimated that between 12 to 24 American children die each year because their parents chose to pray in place of seeking medical care. That is about one percent of all child abuse deaths.
"It's not a big number, but unlike a lot of the others, these are entirely preventable," Asser said.
In a study conducted by Asser and Rita Swan, president of CHILD, Inc., an organization that seeks to end child abuse through religious or cultural practices, it was determined that out of 172 children who died because of religion-based medical neglect, 140 of them would have had a 90 percent chance of survival.
Eighteen of those children would have had a 50 percent change if given proper medical care.
"Most were ordinary illnesses that no one dies from - appendicitis, pneumonia ... - and many of them died slow, horrible deaths, without the benefit of (pain-relief) medicine," Asser said.
Swan told CP that the Hickman case is just one of several other child abuse through religion cases that occur every year because of lenient religion laws.
"Idaho is a terrible example," Swan said. "Not only does Idaho allow parents to refuse medical care for their children based on religious belief, she says, but state laws also do not require autopsies unless a crime was committed, which hinders opponents of that state's laws to prove the their danger."
Religious groups that eschew medical help are a tiny minority in the United States, according to Thomson Mathew, dean of the Oral Roberts University School of Theology and Missions, described such groups as misguided.
"They are very much in the fringe today," Mathew told Tulsa World.
"In many cases, they are not theologically trained, and they teach that dependence on medicine demonstrates a lack of faith in God. That puts pressure on people," he said.
Rockwall Sevy, whose parents were also Followers of Christ members, was 14 years old when he died of pneumonia. Instead of seeking medical care as his health deteriorated, Sevy's parents only prayed.
According to KATU.com, Idaho statute 18-1501 says a parent who "chooses...treatment by prayer...shall not...have violated the duty of care to such child."
Canyon County Prosecutor Bryan Taylor says there is nothing he can do to stop parents from using prayer instead of medicine.
"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," Taylor said.
Swan believed the statute is a clear example of child abuse.
"A 14 year-old should not have to die of pneumonia," she said.
Despite the possibility of several children around America dying every year because of their parents' religious beliefs, Swan said that changes are occurring.
She was active in getting the Oregon senate to unanimously pass House Bill 27-21, which "Eliminates reliance on spiritual treatment as defense to certain crimes in which victim is under 18 years of age."
As the bill was being discussed on the floor, a woman who grew up with members of the Followers of Christ Church told the state senate that people in her neighborhood and high school knew that the church had a reputation of letting children die for over 50 years.
"They passed the bill and declared it an emergency so it would take effect right away," Swan said. "And it was an emergency. It was a 50-year emergency."