OREGON CITY - A Clackamas County judge stunned a courtroom packed with supporters of Dale and Shannon Hickman Monday when he sentenced the couple, members of an Oregon City faith-healing church, to prison for six years and three months. The Hickmans received the mandatory minimum prison term under Measure 11 sentencing guidelines…. “This is a sentence you have justly earned,” said Presiding Judge Robert D. Herndon. He called incarceration “a modest penalty for causing the death of a vulnerable person. … This was so preventable.”
I’ve written previously about the Followers of Christ, a sect based in Oregon City, just south of Portland. Not surprisingly, I’m not a big fan- but it really has nothing to do with their particular flavor of Christianity. No, I don’t agree with the Followers of Christ and their doctrine, but it’s a free country and…well, freedom of religion and all that, right? Except that “freedom of religion” shouldn’t be taken to mean “freedom to ignore the health and well-being of a children in the name of your religion.” Thanks to the court system in Clackamas County, a clear and unmistakable message is finally being sent to church members. It’s about damn time…even if a manslaughter conviction seems like a slap on the wrist.
David Hickman didn’t have to die. Born two months prematurely, little David lived less than nine hours. An autopsy revealed underdeveloped lungs and staph pneumonia, conditions that are easily treatable and curable- if David’s parents had sought medical treatment for their newborn son. Instead, as David turned grey and struggled to breathe, Dale and Shannon Hickman relied on the faith-healing rituals of their church to cure their son. Ultimately, David died because his parents neglected to seek medical care for him. Now they’re reduced to begging for mercy for what in my estimation should be a murder conviction, not manslaughter.
This sort of controversy has been dogging the Followers of Christ for years now, and it appears that the legal system is finally owning up to the reality that parents are letting their children die when medical treatment is easily and readily available. Law enforcement officials in Clackamas County have struggled for years to deal with this problem without looking as if they’re engaging in religious persecution. I understand that religious freedom is a cornerstone of American democracy, but let’s look at where this caution has led. If you take away the religious aspect of the equation and a child dies because parents refuse to seek medical treatment, there’s a name for it- child abuse. In some cases, it rises to the level of manslaughter or murder. Add religion, and all of a sudden parental malfeasance and neglect is protected behavior? Really?
Personally, my preference would have been to see the Hickmans charged with murder…because that’s exactly what they did to their son. David Hickman never had a chance. Vulnerable and desperately ill, David was completely dependent on his parents. Unfortunately for him, he was born to parents who believe that prayer heals and that conventional medicine betrays a lack of faith in the healing powers of the Almighty.
If you’re an adult and you believe in the power of faith healing, good on you. You have the right to make an informed choice, and if your choice is to eschew modern medicine for the power of prayer, you’re certainly free to do so. A child, especially one only a few hours old, has no such choice available to them. David was completely dependent on his parents, and his parents declined to seek medical treatment for David. In relying on the power or prayer, they condemned their son to what had to be a painful, agonizing death. David’s nine hours in this world were filled with anguish and misery. Under what circumstances could anyone possessed of even the barest shred of humanity think that using religion to deny health care to a gravely ill child is acceptable?
I believe in freedom of religion. I don’t believe in child abuse. Nor do I believe that religion provides license to engage in child abuse. The Followers of Christ have a long history of denying health to ill children using their religion as justification. In doing so, they’ve allowed children to suffer needlessly and in a few cases children have died, even though treatment was both accessible and available.
What Dale and Shannon Hickman did to their newborn son should in my estimation have been prosecuted as a murder case. They made a conscious decision to not seek medical treatment for David, even though their son was clearly in great distress. Was their intent to kill David? Of course not. The end result, though, was the same. Their son could have easily been treated and saved; instead the Hickmans chose to rely on faith healing. If they were dealing with a disease that one of them was suffering from, that’s an adult making a free and informed choice. David Hickman was a vulnerable newborn child with a treatable and curable condition. In my mind, making a conscious decision not to seek medical care that results in the death of a child should be regarded as murder. Until and unless the legal system here in Oregon begins trying parents for murder, there’s every chance that members of the Followers of Christ will continue to choose faith healing over medical care. How many more children must die before we stop enabling child abuse and murder disguised as religious freedom?
A six-year prison term seems scant punishment for the preventable death of a child caused by neglect and religious zealotry.David Hickman deserved better.