Bruce Wingate was ready to get serious about the sobering topic of Idaho children dying due to parental neglect when someone interrupted, asking about a recipe for gingerbread.
"Don't worry. Gingerbread is pretty easy," he said, calming a flustered kitchen volunteer at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Boise. "I've got the baking pans out in in my car, and we can whip up some gingerbread in a jiffy."
The brief gingerbread conversation broke the tension, if only for a moment. Wingate, founder of the Protect Idaho Kids Foundation, spends many of his days and nights at Immanuel Lutheran.
"I think we've served more than 50,000 meals here to the homeless, the lonely or to those who hunger in different ways," said Wingate. "I also think it's very appropriate for us to be having a conversation here in a house of worship about protecting children. Many people of faith truly oppose special religious-exemptions which have resulted in the suffering of too many children."
Getting people of faith, let alone Idaho lawmakers, involved in a debate about faith-based exemption from civil and criminal liability is tricky business—which is why Wingate said it's time to frame that debate more simply.
"If you ask Idaho legislators whether they support the state's faith-healing exemptions, suddenly, some of them start talking about ideals and principles," said Wingate. "But all of that talk about ideals and principles can get in the way of reality. The reality is that 182 children have died unnecessarily in Idaho because of faith-healing exemptions, which continue to protect those children's parents from any liability."
That stunning statistic, Wingate argues, requires a more direct question.
"Do those legislators really want to be responsible for supporting a law that, since it has been in effect, has seen 182 children die and even more children suffer?" he asked.
Idaho's Checkered Past Regarding Child Endangerment
In 1887, before officially becoming a state, the Idaho territory enacted a law: "Every parent of any child who willfully omits, without lawful excuse, to furnish necessary food, clothing, shelter or medical attendance for such child, is guilty of a misdemeanor." Even after Idaho became the 43rd state, the law remained in effect for the better part of a century. It wasn't until 1972 that the Idaho Legislature voted unanimously to institute religious exemptions for child endangerment in the criminal code. In 1976, the Idaho Legislature went a step further and added religious exemptions, this time in the civil code.
As reports grew of more Idaho children suffering and dying while their parents turned to prayer instead of medicine, the Governor's Task Force on Children at Risk was convened in 2015 and conducted a full review of Idaho religious exemptions. In his summary, task force chairman Kirtlan Naylor concluded, "Religious freedoms must be protected, but vulnerable children must also be appropriately sheltered from unnecessary harm and death." That, in turn, prompted a separate 10-member joint legislative panel to convene in August 2016, which took testimony from Idaho prosecutors, and opponents and proponents of the exemptions.
"This religious exemption is the only place in the [Idaho] Child Protective Act that places the parent's right before the child," said Mary Jo Beig, from the office of the Idaho Attorney General, urging the task force to recommend a change.
The office of the Ada County Prosecutor felt much the same.
"We would like to see this exemption lifted," said Jean Fisher, special crimes unit chief, agreeing change in Idaho was long overdue.
The debate shifted to the Idaho Statehouse in March this year when Senate Bill 1182 was introduced as a proposed compromise. The bill to "amend existing law to revise a provision regarding medical treatment by prayer through spiritual means," would make changes to the faith-healing exemption from civil liability for child neglect, but it made no change to the exemptions in idaho criminal code.
"It was a terrible bill," said Wingate. "First of all, it actually tried to broaden some of the existing exemptions. Secondly, it would have left it up to children to say something when things went wrong. [No] dying 10-year-old is going to say, 'Mommy, I want you and Daddy to be penalized. I need a doctor.' A child is just not going to say those words."
When SB 1182 came up for debate March 21, there was little support from either side of the issue. Some Idaho senators argued the measure violated freedom of religion while others argued the bill didn't go far enough.
"I think it's fundamentally wrong to criminalize people for the free exercise of religion," said Sen. Jim Rice (R-Caldwell).
"People of faith, the medical community [and] law enforcement, not to mention many parents, are very much against this bill," said Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett (D-Ketchum). The bill was defeated 11 to 24.
"Which brings us to where we are today," said Wingate. "Have you seen the Halloween cards we recently sent out to all of the Idaho legislators?"
In his hand, Wingate held a greeting card with a picture of a frowning pumpkin on the front. "Even the Pumpkins Are Sad This Halloween. Why?" read the message below the photo. Inside the card, another message read, "Because three more children died in Idaho's anti-medical sects in two months this year. No action was taken because of Idaho's religious exemptions."
Protect Idaho Kids Foundation will next send out Christmas cards to lawmakers, with a similar message: "We can respect religious freedom and a parent's right to prayer while also demanding that children receive life-saving medical care."
The Legacy of Matthew Swan
Rita Swan doesn't hesitate for a moment when she's asked about faith-based exemptions in Idaho.
"This state is the worst in the nation when it comes to children who have died due to faith-based medical neglect," she said.
Rita, 74, is more soft-spoken when she talks about her son Matthew Swan.
"This year is... Well, it has been..." she took a breath. "It has been 40 years now, hasn't it? It was 1977. Matthew is the reason why I'm here talking to you today."
- George Prentice
- Rita Swan
Rita grew up in a family of six. She was five years old and living in Idaho when her parents converted to Christian Science. Because followers of her parents' newly-embraced faith didn't believe in traditional medical care, Rita suffered from mumps and pinkeye as a child.
"Quite frankly, our family felt superior to people who were treated by doctors," said Rita.
Eventually, Rita married Doug Swan, a fellow Christian Scientist, and both became teachers at a Christian Science college.
"At the time we didn't question anything, but in retrospect, when I saw one woman with an enormous growth on her neck and another woman with a withered arm, I should have questioned," said Swan. "Oddly, we thought we were in a comfortable place to be and Christian Scientists are pretty pleasant people to be around."
That pleasantness would soon fade. In 1977, when the Swan's 16-month-old son Matthew developed a high fever, the family didn't take him to a doctor or hospital. Instead, a Christian Science church practitioner ordered prayer and told the Swans not to tell anyone about Matthew's illness. The baby's condition deteriorated. He stopped accepting food, he began having convulsions and his spine began to stiffen. A church practitioner insisted Matthew's complications were due to the sins of his parents. When the Swans could bear no more, they took Matthew to a hospital.
"The doctor took one look at Matthew, looked up at us and asked, 'How long has this child been like this?' In less than a minute, six nurses surrounded Matthew," said Rita. "When a second Christian Science practitioner had heard that we took Matthew to the hospital, she was hysterical. Her biggest concern was that the church was somehow going to blame her for sending us to a doctor."
After suffering a few days more, Matthew died on July 7, 1977. The formal diagnosis was spinal meningitis and irreversible brain damage. Nothing would ever be the same for the Swans. The only time Rita set foot in a Christian Science church again was to deliver a letter that she and her husband were withdrawing from the faith.
"They said we were too confused to make a big decision like that. They kept telling us about other families that had lost children but went right on with the faith," she said. "It was frightening but, yes, we left."
Since then, the Swans have turned to traditional medical care for their family—they have two daughters and a grandson named Matthew. The Swans would also go on to create Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, or CHILD, and for more than three decades, they effectively lobbied state legislatures throughout the United States, turning the tide against faith-based exemptions from liability when parents deny a child medical care.
"When we started our fight in the early 1980s, nearly every state had some kind of religious exemption, but look where we are today," said Rita, pointing to a color-coded U.S. map. "Today, there are nine states that still allow religious exemptions for negligent homicide or manslaughter—Idaho is one of those nine. But Idaho's neighbors Montana, Wyoming and Nevada don't allow any criminal exemptions, and Oregon has eliminated all criminal or civil faith-healing exemptions."
The Swans recently decided to step away from the day-to-day operations of their nonprofit to spend more time with their family, and Philadelphia-based CHILD USA has folded the mission of CHILD into its fight against child abuse and neglect. Rita will still travel just about anywhere at any time to talk to anyone about ending faith-based exemptions.
"My husband and I always said if we could save the life of just one child, it was all worth it," she said. "A Christian Science practitioner even called me one day to say, 'My child is alive today because of you. I would rather be a bad Christian Scientist and have a daughter who is alive.'"
Recently, Swan traveled to Boise from her home in Kentucky to spend time with Wingate and other members of the Protect Idaho Kids Foundation and discuss a new strategy to overturn Idaho's faith-based exemptions.
"Isn't she amazing?" asked Wingate. "If Rita can accomplish this in so many other states, we know we can accomplish this in Idaho."
Wingate said his group isn't deterred because the 2017 Idaho Legislature failed to respond to their cause.
"I can tell that , yes, there are two bills we're working on right now and will be introduced at the next legislative session," he added.
In the meantime, Wingate said his group will be busy sending out some more greeting cards to Idaho lawmakers, wishing them a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
"In 2018, the debate isn't about faith. It will be about the future, the future of Idaho's children," he said. "It's always about the children; not the parents but the children. And this is not a matter of faith. It's a matter of protecting children. And when the law in Idaho prevents that from happening, then we need to reconsider that law."