For the past eight years, advocates have come to the Idaho legislature requesting repeal of Idaho’s “Religious Shield Laws.” Advocates say children are dying because parents refuse life-saving treatment for their children. Religious Shield laws protect parents from prosecution in these instances. And so far, the legislature has done nothing.
Well, not quite nothing, legislative defenders would counter. They had an interim committee meeting. Okay, one meeting, then nothing.
Governor Otter, to his credit did something. He started a Child Mortality Review Team by executive order in 2013. Their reports are available online. The reports show that 2-5 children in Idaho die annually from treatable diseases where parents refused to seek treatment for religious reasons.
The report doesn’t locate these deaths, but the religious community famous for this is the Followers of Christ Church in Canyon County in southeast Idaho. One Child Mortality Report estimated the death rate for children in the Followers of Christ community to be ten times the rate for the rest of Idaho.
When I was contacted as a new (but not young) Idaho State Senator by advocates for removing the religious shield laws, I wondered what the local authorities thought. I knew they had some recourse. I don’t like solving local problems in the legislature.
I spoke with the then-coroner of Canyon County. My main question, an allegation made by former church members wanting the shield laws removed, was: are all these child deaths being reported and adequately investigated by the county coroner? The allegation was that some dead children had been buried without a birth certificate, without notifying the coroner of a death. Both of these acts are illegal, and not protected by religious shield laws. But the then-coroner assured me she had a “good relationship” with the church community and she had recorded and investigated all the deaths.
To check this out, I got pictures of all the headstones of children in the Peaceful Valley cemetery, where Followers of Christ inter their dead. There were over fifty. I asked the Idaho Department of Vital Statistics to correlate the headstones with death certificates. They reported “near” 100% correlation. So, it looked like, unless there are unmarked graves somewhere else, the coroner did indeed record the deaths. I did not review the adequacy of her investigation.
I also asked the Canyon County prosecuting attorney if he was aware of instances of child neglect or abuse that he had not prosecuted because of the religious shield laws. His lawyerly answer was, “You guys in the legislature make the laws, not me. I just prosecute the laws you make.”
I’m not sure changing the law is a necessary step. If Canyon County cared about child deaths in their community they could form their own Child Mortality review team. They already have a Multidisciplinary Task Force for the Prevention of Child Abuse. Every county in Idaho has one by law. These task forces get together on a regular basis and review all referrals to the Department of Health and Welfare Child Protection Services (CPS) about abuse and neglect. Members of the task force include law enforcement, CPS, school officials, and others. I was a member of our county task force as a physician and as the county coroner.
I started a Child Mortality Review in our county in the early 2000’s when I became aware Idaho was not reviewing child deaths in a systematic fashion. This was before Governor Otters Executive order. The prosecutor, law enforcement, CPS would attend. I would present the case and my findings and ask for their input. Did I miss something in the investigation? Is there something more I should be doing?
If Canyon County elected officials, but more, if Canyon County voters demanded such work from their elected officials, maybe some helpful discussions would occur. As it is, it just looks like Canyon County doesn’t care about preventing children dying because of their parents’ religious beliefs.
Dan Schmidt is a family physician who lives in Moscow. Dr. Schmidt, a Democrat, served in the Idaho state senate from 2010 to 2016.