A Coroner’s Race in Idaho Centered Around the Handling of “Faith-Healing” Deaths

There was a primary election in Idaho last week for a position that, in any typical year, no one outside of Canyon County would’ve cared about. But it was relevant because the issue of faith-healing was front and center.

The County Coroner Vicki DeGeus-Morris, who had been in office for 28 years, lost the primary to former deputy coroner Jennifer Crawford. Because there are no other names on the ballot, Crawford will almost certainly win the election, and that’s good news for people who are unsatisfied with how the county handles parents who let their children die of curable diseases because they refuse to take them to doctors.

Vicki DeGeus-Morris (left) and Jennifer Crawford

As it stands, Idaho is one of six states that allows faith-based exemptions when parents are charged with negligent homicide or manslaughter against their children. The parents who kill their children by refusing to get them appropriate medical care are essentially let off the hook, which is why Idaho in particular sees so many of these kinds of deaths. Making things worse is the fact that the state is home to the Followers of Christ sect, members of which have been in the news many times over because their kids died from preventable diseases.

How does the coroner position play into any of that?

Child advocates, opponents of the religious exemption and even Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue have accused DeGeus-Morris of failing to immediately report medically unattended child deaths to law enforcement.

Donahue said communication between the sheriff and the coroner’s offices has improved over the last two years, but there were times since he took office in 2012 when the coroner’s office contacted law enforcement too late or not at all.

“In the past, and it’s gotten better the last year, I admit, we may get contacted by the coroner 10 to 14 hours later. Let’s say an average 8 to 10 hours,” Donahue said. By that time, Donahue said, the scene of the death has been altered and the victim moved in such a way that impedes the investigation.

In other words, DeGeus-Morris didn’t do enough to build stronger cases against religious parents who kill their children out of neglect. Even if those parents couldn’t be prosecuted under state law, the gut-wrenching stories can at least help change public sentiment against the status quo. There’s hope that Crawford will alleviate that problem by bringing these stories to the forefront as soon as possible (though it would be even better if she had no stories like this to act upon).

DeGeus-Morris is, however, right to say that there’s not much a coroner can do in these situations. If people are unhappy with the laws, they need to complain to lawmakers; she’s just following orders. But she could always do more.

[DeGeus-Morris said:] “I don’t judge. It’s not my place to judge them. The Legislature has to change that law — (Crawford) can’t change that law. She has to work with them under the same circumstances, and I don’t know how she’s going to make it any better.

Any change at this point is a step in the right direction. At the very least, maybe some state legislators will think twice before supporting the unjust law in the name of religious freedom.

Janet Heimlich, founder of the Child-Friendly Faith Project, which raises awareness about faith-based child abuse (and on which I serve as advisor), told me she was pleased with the primary results and hopes it leads to change:

It was a big victory for child protection that Vicki DeGeus-Morris lost. This woman has been giving a pass to adults who allow their children to die from treatable illnesses, simply because they belong to a certain Christian group.

DeGeus-Morris says it’s not her place to judge these parents, but her personal views of their beliefs have nothing to do with her job. As coroner, she should have allowed for an autopsy to be performed on every child who died from medical neglect and then passed on that information to prosecutors who could then decide whether to prosecute.

I hope the next coroner acts more professionally and honorably, to respect the dead and not provide cover for neglectful parents.

This is only a start. Idaho has seen too many child deaths occur with no consequences for the parents who just sat back and watched it happen. A state that red, and presumably that “pro-life,” needs to do more to protect children from abusive parents, even if the motive for that abuse comes from the Bible.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link. A portion of this article was published earlier)

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