An end to faith healing? Legislation is proposed which would close a religious exemption clause in the state’s child abuse statutes. In the wake of the prosecution and conviction of a Marathon County couple whose diabetic daughter died after they prayed over her rather than seeking medical treatment, legislation is proposed which would close a religious exemption clause in the state’s child abuse statutes.
State Representative Terese Berceau (D-Madison) says the decision to charge Dale and Leilani Neumann with reckless homicide in daughter Kara’s death does not represent a solution to the issue. “We couldn’t save her while she was alive, and doctors are saying that she could have been saved one hour before she died, if they had known the condition she was in,” said Berceau. “So, when people say ‘well it works because we can prosecute them,’ yes, but after the child is dead.” Berceau said child advocates are supporting her measure (AB-590) over one from state Senator Lena Taylor (SB-384). “I did work with all these groups to get their opinion, and basically they just said, bottom line, just delete that portion of the statute that gives people this religious defense. I would say, look at the supporters of my bill, versus the supporters of Senator Taylor’s.”
Rita Swan, who heads the child-advocacy group Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty, supports the Berceau bill, although she’s not sure it would have saved the life of Kara Neumann. “Those parents are just so unrepentant,” she said of the Neumanns. “They just insist that they were doing God’s will.” Swan also said that the Berceau bill would safeguard children – including those like Kara Neuman’s siblings. “Those children were potentially at risk of harm, but the court ruled that child protective services could not monitor the health of the surviving siblings, because of the religious exemption in the neglect code.”
Swan said that parents in faith healing sects are conflicted, and the Berceau “They have this religious doctrine that’s telling them that God is going to heal this child. They want to see a healing, they’re afraid to go to a doctor, they’re afraid of violating their faith,” she said. “Wouldn’t it just be a blessing to these parents, really, if the laws were clear, and they didn’t have to have that conflict between their faith and the law?”
Berceau said passage of her bill and removal of the religious exemption in the abuse statute would mean that if there is suspected abuse or neglect, the county would be able to go into the home, assess the health of the children and if necessary remove them from the home. “We’re just asking that an exemption be removed,” said Swan. “Parents in faith healing sects would not have to meet a higher standard, or a different standard. But everybody would be on notice that at the same point in time when a Catholic, or a Jew or an atheist would have a legal duty to take a child to a doctor, any parent regardless of their religious belief would have that same duty.”