Oregon Baby May Go Blind Because of Faith-Healing Parents

Timothy and Rebecca Wyland charged with first-degree criminal negligence.

May 25, 2011, 4:26 PM

May 26, 2011— -- Oregon doctors have said that Alayna Wyland, an 18-month-old with a massive growth covering her left eye, may go blind because her parents refused to get her medical treatment on religious grounds.

Today jury selection continues in the trial of Timothy and Rebecca Wyland, who have been charged with first-degree criminal mistreatment of their child, only days after the state House passed a bill to be tougher on faith-healing parents.

The Wylands, who are 43 and 22, respectively, and are members of the Followers of Christ Church, told authorities they believed that prayer and anointing oils would heal their daughter's hemangioma, an abnormal growth of blood vessels that was occluding her vision.

In the past two years, Oregon's Clackamas County has prosecuted two other couples from the same church whose children died from untreated ailments. One, Jeff and Marci Beagley, were convicted of criminally negligent homicide last year and sentenced to 16 months in prison.

Their 16-year-old son, Neil, died of complications from an untreated urinary tract blockage.

"With an adult who refuses medical help, it's not a problem -- it's one of the freedoms we have in this country," said Gordon Melton, director of the California-based Institute for the Study of American Religions. "But if it's a child, the state has an interest in the child remaining healthy and becoming an adult. The court can step in and assume parental control."

Followers of Christ is an independent evangelical church that emerged in the 19th century and now has about 5,000 to 10,000 members, according to Melton.

"They are decentralized and have been particularly strong in Indiana and Oklahoma and along the East Coast," said Melton. "They have congregations scattered abroad and seem to function with an informal leadership of elders."

"The local church is important and the group has been tied together by an understanding about not using medicine," he said.

Melton was a court witness in a similar religious defense case in Oregon where a child died of meningitis. By the time the state intervened, "It was too late," he said. "It becomes deadly very quickly."

About 300 children die a year at the expense of their parents' religious beliefs, according to the Iowa-based organization, Children's Healthcare is Legal Duty, a group that advocates for tough penalties against those who seek exemption from child abuse laws.

Under Oregon law, parents have a "legal duty" to provide care for their children, and those who "knowingly withhold physical care or medical attention," can be prosecuted, according to Michael Regan, senior deputy district attorney in Clackamas County.

Child welfare officials reported the Wylands, who said they would not seek medical care for their daughter unless it was court-ordered, according to Regan. The baby was taken into state custody last July and has been treated with medication. It is not clear if vision will ever develop in that eye, he said.

The Wylands' lawyer, John Neidig did not return calls from ABCNews.com. In 2009, he defended Raylene Worthington , another Oregon City mother who was charged in the death of her 15-month-old daughter Ava, who had pneumonia and a blood infection that could have been treated.

She and her husband Carl, who belonged to the Followers of Christ Church, were found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter. Carl Worthington was convicted on a lesser charge of criminal mistreatment and sentenced to 60 days in jail.

That church was the focus of a series of court cases in the state in the late 1980s and early 1990s that led to restrictions on religious shield laws, removing faith healing as a defense in cases of negligent homicide and manslaughter.

Now, if the Oregon House follows the Senate's action earlier this week, religious beliefs "would not be a defense for harm to a child for any crime," according to Regan of the district attorney's office.

Some of the religions that have restrictions on medical care include Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses, who object to blood transfusions, and many smaller fundamental Christian sects.

The history of laws honoring faith healing goes back to 1974, when the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare first required states to have clauses in their child abuse and neglect legislation that permitted exemption from prosecution on religious grounds. In 1983, the federal government allowed states to repeal these clauses.

In 1994, Oregon compromised with Christian Scientists and allowed some exemptions. In 2001, Colorado eliminated its exemption after Amanda Bates, 13, died from diabetes and gangrene.

Since 2001, the American Academy of Pediatrics has formally opposed exemption laws.

Thirty States Have Religious Shield Laws

Today, 30 states still allow some form of religious shield. Some state laws exempt parents only if their children are faced with a non-life threatening condition or disease.

"Of the more than 2,000 laws dealing with religion can be traced back to Christian Scientists," said Melton. "Other groups have ridden on this. Most of these are First Amendment cases and they go back to Mormon laws in which the court decided that freedom of expression is absolute, but freedom of action is not."

Americans cannot perform ritual murder or do illegal drugs in the name of religion, he said, though there are some highly prescribed exceptions among Native Americans and use of traditional hallucinogens.

But some medical ethicists see problems with eliminating all religious exemptions.

Dr. Ron Koons, an internist and member of the medical ethics committee at the University of California Irvine, admits these stories are "painful" to hear and "no one wants to lose a child."

"The question is, what rights do we have and what rights do they have?" he asked.

"We are outsiders," said Koons. "But the parent who speaks for the child may say, 'If God wants my child to die anf my child will be blind, this is God's will. Our moral conflict is how can we make someone understand our point of view? But to get someone to change their mind, you have to listen to the other side."

His colleague at UC Irvine, Felicia Cohn, who is also bio-ethics director for Kaiser Permanente of Orange County, asks, "What principle are you willing to sacrifice to maintain a child's health?"

Cohn worked with a family who were Jehovah's Witnesses and refused a life-saving blood transfusion for their child, so the hospital got an order.

"Unless there are compelling reasons, a child cannot make choices about their religious beliefs," she said. "The interests of the state in maintaining the child's health overrides their religious preferences."

Sometimes parent are angry and hostile when they lose their rights, but often there is a sense of relief, according to Cohn.

"The parents were very happy the child was well, but they were concerned about their religious community and whether they would be shunned," she said. "We brought in their hospital liaison committee to help."

Working closely with religious communities to learn which treatments are acceptable and which are not can go a long way to helping children and their parents who have strong religious convictions.

"Some are very strict and it still won't be acceptable to the family, but most are more temperate and recognize that if it's done by court order, the parent stood firm," said Cohn. "When you tell a parent their child is sick, most times they will do anything to save their child."

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