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10 Failed Attempts To Heal Children With Faith

by Maureen Roe
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Between 1975 and 1995, approximately 172 children died in the US after their parents withheld medical care on religious grounds—140 of these fatalities were from conditions easily treated by medicine. Certain Christian denominations rely on Biblical scriptures like James 5:15 (“And the prayer of faith shall save the sick”), interpreting them to mean that believers should seek healing from their own prayers rather than from members of the medical community.

Adults taking charge of their own health and choosing their own treatment (or lack thereof) is one thing, but when a parent opts to not get medical help for a child, resulting in that child’s death, then courts must determine where the line between the freedom to practice one’s religion and the duty to protect one’s child should be drawn.

10 Kent Schaible

Fuck These People

Catherine and Herbert Schaible are lifelong members of the First Century Gospel Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. One of the congregation’s basic tenets is that God, and only God, can heal the sick. In January 2009, their 2-year-old son, Kent, began to show signs of serious illness. He had a high fever, a severe cough, and difficulty breathing. These symptoms lasted for 2 straight weeks until he finally died on January 24 from complications of bacterial pneumonia. Never was a doctor visited, called, or consulted during that period. Kent’s father claimed that they “tried to fight the devil [with their prayers], but in the end, the devil won.”

Perhaps antibiotics would have been a better choice of weapons in this fight. In December 2010, the couple was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

9 Madeline Neumann

Glaucometer for Measuring Blood Sugar

Leilani and Dale Neumann identify themselves as Pentecostal Christians. In 2008, their 11-year-old daughter, Madeline, began to show signs of excessive lethargy to the point of losing consciousness. Instead of contacting the local doctor, they chose to pray over Madeline. Eventually, Madeline Kara Neumann died of an acute diabetic reaction. In 2009, the couple was convicted of second-degree reckless homicide.

8 Dean Michael Heilman


Dean and Susan Heilman belong to the Faith Tabernacle Congregation in North Philadelphia. This church is notorious for the number of children who have died after failure to receive medical intervention. In 1991 alone, the church lost five children to the measles. In the summer of 1997, little Dean Michael was just shy of two years old. He was an active toddler who loved being outside in his plastic wading pool, throwing a ball, or running back and forth on the lawn. One night, he stepped on something sharp—probably a piece of glass—and cut his right foot. What followed for 19 hours was nonstop bleeding and several Band-Aids and fabric bandages saturated in blood.

Instead of calling 911, they called their pastor, Charles Reinert, who would lead them in prayers for Dean’s recovery and anoint him with oil. Dean ultimately bled to death because he was a hemophiliac. A local doctor, Catherine Manno, said, “If proper medical attention had been given, this child would have survived.” In 1997, the Heilmans were charged with involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to probation.

7 Brandon Schaible

acterial pneumonia

Back in the news just this year, the Schaibles have contributed to the death of another of their children: seven-month-old Brandon. The little boy had lost his appetite, had constant bouts of diarrhea, and had become overly irritable. Despite their past failed attempt at healing with prayer alone, they chose to again call their pastor rather than a physician. Brandon died on April 18, 2013 from dehydration and strep—and, once again, bacterial pneumonia.

This time, now with two children having succumbed to untreated illness, the Schaibles were charged with third-degree murder.

6 Harrison Johnson


Wylie and Kelly Johnson belong to a group called The Fellowship, which shuns all medical care due to the belief that physicians practice witchcraft. In 1998, while visiting friends in a wooded mobile-home park close to Tampa, Florida, their three-year-old son, Harrison, was attacked by a swarm of wasps and stung more than 432 times all over his face, head, and body. Paramedics were not called until seven hours later, and shortly thereafter, Harrison was pronounced dead. The stages of his dying would not have been easy—he was no doubt in great pain until he slipped into shock and ultimately drowned in his own fluids.

The Johnsons waited to call because their religious group disdains doctors and deems them evil “sorcerers” who practice paganism. However, the true evil in this case was their failure to protect their child from their own extremist ideas and ignorance. The Johnsons were charged with felony child abuse but acquitted by a jury because they did not intentionally bring harm to Harrison.

5 Callahan Douglas Shippy


Steve and Ruth Shippy are members of the Followers of Christ Church, a fundamentalist sect whose members put all their faith in the healing power of prayer and profess to refuse medical care even to the point of death. In December 1998, the Shippys were living in a rural community of Canada’s Alberta province when their 14-year-old son, Callahan, became ill. He was lethargic, feverish, losing weight, and displaying unusual irritability and discomfort. For almost four weeks, the boy languished in poor health before he died of complications from diabetes.

After doctors testified that Callahan’s condition could have been easily controlled with insulin, the Shippys faced charges of criminal negligence resulting in death. According to data from the 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet, one in every 400 children and adolescents lives with diabetes (the key word here is “lives”).

4 David Hickman


Like the Shippy parents, Dale and Shannon Hickman are members of the Followers of Christ and adamantly opposed to medical assistance. On September 26, 2009, Shannon went into labor two months before her due date. Despite the clear dangers involved in such a premature birth, Shannon and her husband chose not to go to the hospital and instead have the baby in her mother’s home. Little David was born weighing just 3 pounds, 7 ounces. His father prayed for him and anointed him with olive oil, but David was dead just eight hours later.

Doctors testified that he could have been saved had the parents dialed 911 right away. When asked why they didn’t, Dale said, “Because I was praying.” In September 2011, the couple was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter.

3 Ava Worthington


Still another casualty of the Clackamas County Followers of Christ faith-healing church is Ava Worthington. Born to Carl and Raylene Worthington in 2007, she was a robust, healthy 10-pound baby at birth, putting her in the 95th percentile among all babies in terms of weight and height. When she was three months old, a cystic growth appeared on her neck that restricted her breathing and weakened her whole immune system. She began to lose weight—quickly dropping to the bottom 5th percentile. In response, her father called together not the best doctors, but members of the church who anointed her with oil, gave her drops of wine with water, fasted, and prayed over her.

Despite all these efforts, on March 2, 2008, Ava stopped breathing and died of pneumonia with no efforts to save her—no rescue breaths, no CPR, and no 911 call. One doctor claimed that Ava could have been saved at almost any point. Carl Worthington was sentenced to two months in county jail and five years of probation. He was also told that he would have to provide medical care for his five-year-old daughter and the baby his wife was carrying. How disturbing that he would need a court order to remind him of the need to protect his children.

2 Zachery Swezey

Swezey Fam

Greg and Jalea Swezey belong to the Church of the First Born in Okanogan, Washington, which encourages faith healing. On March 15, 2009, their 17-year-old son, Zach, became ill. The family originally thought the sickness was a result of eating a rotten sandwich, but they later concluded that it was the flu. Zach had chills, a high fever, and severe stomach cramps. He died three days later. Even though Zachery was a few months shy of being 18 and an adult, able to make his own decisions, his father claimed that when he asked Zach if he wanted to go to the hospital—15 minutes before he would die—Zach said no. He had welcomed members of his congregation the day before to pray over him and dab his head with olive oil. Zachery died of a burst appendix—an incident that, when treated by doctors, kills only one in 100,000 people.

Originally charged with second-degree murder, the couple was acquitted in May 2012.

1 Robyn Twitchell

Robyn Twitchell

In 1879, Mary Baker Eddy founded the Church of Christian Science in Boston, Massachusetts. Since that time, one tenet has remained fundamentally fixed: the reliance on prayer instead of on standard medical treatment. In fact, Christian Science appears to be the only religion that has full-time paid practitioners who pray for the sick. David and Ginger Twitchell were devout Christian Scientists in 1984 when their son, Robyn, was born. Two years later, still holding their religious convictions, they decided not to seek medical attention while Robyn suffered for five days with an unknown illness.

It began with his constant screaming and vomiting. On the second day, his parents called the Christian Science worldwide public relations manager to see about getting Christian Science treatment instead of medical treatment. On the fourth day, a church “nurse” was force-feeding Robyn at his bedside. On the fifth day, Robyn was throwing up a brown goo and screaming so loudly in pain that neighbors had to close their windows to avoid hearing him. Finally, at the end of the fifth day, at age two, Robyn died of peritonitis, an abdominal infection, and a twisted bowel. His autopsy pictures show bright red chin and lips where the acid in his vomit had eaten away his skin. He was so dehydrated that his skin stayed up when pinched. Fifteen inches of his intestines were black because the blood supply had been cut off. The parents called 911 only after rigor mortis had set in.

In 1990, the couple was convicted of manslaughter. What bizarre irony that a religion containing the word “science” in its name would be so opposed to the very science that would have saved this little boy’s life.

Maureen Roe is a professor of English and Critical Thinking at Santiago Canyon College in Orange, California. She is also a Christian who believes in taking her children to the doctor when they are sick.

fact checked by Jamie Frater