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ID Law Enforcement: End Religious Exemption for Medical Neglect

Children's advocates want 2020 to be the year Idaho lawmakers end religious groups' exemptions from prosecution in cases of medical neglect of children. (Miguel/Adobe Stock)
Children's advocates want 2020 to be the year Idaho lawmakers end religious groups' exemptions from prosecution in cases of medical neglect of children. (Miguel/Adobe Stock)
January 15, 2020

BOISE, Idaho -- Experts and children's advocates are in Boise this week to discuss a religious exemption that protects faith-healing groups from prosecution when a child dies without receiving medical treatment.

The years-long battle over the exemption again will be in front of Idaho lawmakers. According to the state's child fatality review, three to five children a year lose their lives to medical neglect.

One of Thursday's panelists will be Sheriff Kieran Donahue of Canyon County, where the faith-healing sect Followers of Christ has a strong presence. He said he respects their religious freedom, but thinks the law should be applied equally to everyone.

"This religious shield or this exemption allows a very minute, specific group of people to have protection," he said, "where no one else in society has that protection."

Idaho is one of a handful of states with exemptions for medical neglect.

The event is to start at 4:30 p.m. in the State Capitol's Lincoln Auditorium. The 10-member panel also includes Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson, former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Jones, and Protect Idaho Kids founder Bruce Wingate.

Donahue said the bill in this year's session would make it parents' responsibility to seek medical care.

"If a parent or guardian knows or reasonably should have known that the life of the child or ward would be greatly endangered, or the child could sustain permanent disability without other intervention," he said, "the parent or guardian should have the duty to report the child's condition and seek medical attention."

The panel also will include Tara Kester, whose family was affiliated with Followers of Christ in Canyon County. Kester came to law enforcement as an adult to report her father's sexual abuse, and was able to save her younger sisters from more abuse. Donahue said Kester's mother knew but didn't come forward because it went against her faith. She recently was sentenced as well.

Donahue said he believes while this is an extreme example, it aligns with the Followers' views on medical treatment.

"It really does lead to the fact that they are indoctrinated and told, 'You will not or cannot contact law enforcement, and we know what's best for you.' " Donahue said, "and unfortunately, these atrocities continue to happen."

Information about the event is online at protectidahokids.org, and the Idaho child fatality review report is at idcartf.org.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ID