Son with meningitis was fed smoothies, died. Parents acquitted.

Son with meningitis was fed smoothies, died. Parents acquitted. September 21, 2019

A Canadian appeals court on Thursday exonerated an Alberta man and his wife of responsibility in the 2012 death from meningitis of their 19-month-old son, Ezekiel. His parents treated him with smoothies laced with garlic, onion and horseradish, and other alternative remedies, instead of taking him to a doctor.

boy dies menigitis parents acquitted
Alternative medicine. (Marco Verch, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

David and Collet Stephan had originally been tried and convicted in 2016 of “failing to provide the necessaries of life” to their dangerously ill son, but Canada’s Supeme Court overturned the conviction in May 2018 and ordered a new trial, citing errors in the original judge’s instructions to the jury, the online Lethbridge News Now reported.

Supporters in the courtroom cheered when Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Terry Clackson issued his brief ruling Thursday in a Lethbridge, Alberta, courtroom.

Justice Clackson sided with the defense’s medical experts in his ruling, holding that the boy had likely died of viral meningitis and not the more lethal bacterial version, MSN News online reported. No effective treatments exist for meningitis caused by a virus, while antibiotics can successfully treat bacterial infections.

“I have concluded that Ezekiel did have meningitis,” Clackson wrote in his single-judge opinion. “The Stephans did not know [that] Ezekiel had meningitis but were alert to the possibility and monitoring for symptoms. The meningitis Ezekiel had was viral, and he did not die from meningitis, but from the lack of oxygen. Therefore, I have concluded that the Stephans are not guilty of the charge.”

The justice concluded that the Stephans: “… knew what meningitis was, knew that bacterial meningitis could be very serious, knew what symptoms to look for in relation to bacterial meningitis, knew that viral meningitis was much less serious and saw no symptoms of either. They thought their son had some sort of croup or flu like viral infection. They were concerned and monitoring Ezekiel for any signs that something more serious was causing Ezekiel’s sickness.”

The toddler ultimately died from lack of oxygen after he stopped breathing, the justice said. The Stephans finally called an ambulance when their son stopped breathing.

Prosecutors for the state charged that the Stephans recklessly and negligently endangered their son by using speculative alternative medical treatments on their sick son instead of seeking the advice of qualified medical professionals.

After the verdict was rendered, David Stephan, who served as his own legal representation at trial, declared the acquittal a victory for parents who choose alternative medical care for their children. He said such parents are not “negligent.”

“It’s shocking,” Stephan said of the legal ordeal, “because it’s been seven years of our life fighting this. And so, it’s become a part of our identity. And it’s just a beautiful thought that we can move on with our lives, mourn the loss of Ezekiel appropriately, and see where life takes us from there.”

The Stephans are considering filing suit against the state for reimbursement of more than a million dollars in legal fees they’ve incurred defending against the charges. The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service is mulling whether it will appeal the latest verdict.

In his closing arguments to the court, Stephan claimed that paramedics caused Ezekiel’s death due to improper intubation, and that his son might have lived if the ambulance were better equipped.

Crown prosecutor Britta Kristensen, in her closing argument, credited the boy’s death to “the Stephans’ failure to respond to … increasingly alarming information or feedback from their child” while his illness worsened.

My take-away from Ezekiel’s tragic death and the acquittal of his irresponsible parents from legal culpability is that modern societies must reconfigure their thinking about “parental rights.” As a parent would not be legally entitled to brutally beat their children as a means of “toughening them up” for life, they should not be able to withhold from them potential life-saving medical interventions that are long-tested and viable because the parents harbor unfounded bias against mainstream medicine.

Although the news stories about the case don’t mention if the Stephans’ alternative views are religious in nature, they mirror those of many fundamentalist Christian sects. Our cemeteries are well-populated with the childhood victims of alternative medical imaginings.

And it should come as no surprise that the Stephans are also anti-vaxxers, even though vaccines have demonstrably saved not millions of lives globally but hundreds of millions.

How long must societies effectively look the other way when parents endanger and kill their children with irrationality and willful ignorance based not on reality but wishful prejudice?

In this case, the Stephans technically may not have caused their son’s death, if it’s true that he contracted that strain of meningitis that resists treatment. But, to my mind, they are ultimately responsible for not having sought qualified medical attention anyway.

The Stephans were just legally “lucky” that Ezekiel contracted the viral type, in which nothing they did would likely have saved him and they would avoid legal responsibility. But I doubt they would have behaved differently in either scenario.

Parenthood, as any social services worker will remind you, is not sacred.

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