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VIDEO: Citizen Panel Convenes at Idaho Statehouse to Discuss Dangers of 'Faith Healing'

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- A citizen panel convened at the Idaho Statehouse Feb. 11 to discuss faith healing. -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • A citizen panel convened at the Idaho Statehouse Feb. 11 to discuss faith healing.
A group of citizen panelists and concerned Idahoans gathered at the Idaho Statehouse Lincoln Auditorium Feb. 11 to discuss what the panel described as an issue of dire public health concern: so-called "faith healing." 

"It's very hard to deal with children's deaths. It's tough when you see something happen. I think we need to change the law so prosecutors can look at [deaths of children caused by medical neglect and inadequate medical treatment due to parents' religious beliefs] without binding their hands," said panelist and former Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg.

Some religious sects in Idaho prohibit members from treating children with modern medicine, preferring "faith healing" to alleviate medical conditions. In some cases, those children die for lack of effective treatment. Currently, Idaho law protects those parents against prosecution because they are exercising their religious beliefs. 

Earlier this week, however, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter called on lawmakers to convene a work group to study child deaths due to faith healing after another working group, the Child Fatality Review Team, issued a report on the subject. The CFRT report revealed at least two children have died since 2012 due to preventable causes, but hadn't received medical treatment because of their parents' religious beliefs. The exact number of Idaho children who have died as a result of religiously prescribed medical neglect is unknown.

- Eliza Walton (left) and her sister Mariah (right). -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Eliza Walton (left) and her sister Mariah (right).
Panelist Emily Walton said she is of two minds about the governor's action on the issue. While a new working group will take time to convene and convey its results, it may also open the door to a public hearing that would allow victims of faith healing to share their stories.


"I'm happy to see [the governor] is concerned about the issue," she said. "We need a hearing and have people talk about it."

For Walton, the case against faith healing is personal. Walton's sister, Mariah, suffers from a heart condition that has deteriorated her lungs. Years of medical neglect have exacerbated a treatable condition that has severely disabled her. Now, she needs a lung transplant. When she was 18, Mariah suffered what she thought was a severe asthma attack and went to a local hospital.

"I was very scared going [to the hospital]. On the way back [home] I was crying because I was so scared of what my parents were going to say to me, because my parents my whole life told me if I ever were to go [to see a doctor] that something terrible would happen to me," she said.

- Brian Hoyt described abuse he suffered at the hands of faith healers. -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Brian Hoyt described abuse he suffered at the hands of faith healers.
Other victims of faith healing described their experiences. Brian Hoyt told the panel about hurting his leg at school but his parents blaming him for not having sufficient faith after the injury didn't heal. When a physician had to use scissors to cut off his pant leg to examine Hoyt's injury, his mother accused the doctor of sexual assault.

"This is not about freedom of religion; this is about abuse and neglect. It's tantamount to divine ignorance," he told the panel. "Your god does not dictate child abuse."

Dr. Paul McPherson, of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said he often sees children who have been victims of similar abuse, but the victims of faith healing are hidden by silence. Unlike other victims, the perpetrators of their deaths go un-prosecuted and their stories are lost. 

"There are children who have had what [Mariah] has, but have not survived to tell us. If they could speak, they would say what you said," McPherson said.