This disparate treatment was evident last month in Wisconsin, a state with an exemption for faith-based neglect under its child abuse laws. Leilani and Dale Neumann were sentenced for allowing their 11-year-old daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann, to die in 2008 from an undiagnosed but treatable form of diabetes. The Neumanns are affiliated with a faith-healing church called Unleavened Bread Ministries and continued to pray with other members while Madeline died. They could have received 25 years in prison. Instead, the court emphasized their religious rationale and gave them each six months in jail (to be served one month a year) and 10 years' probation.
During their sentencing, Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Howard said the Neumanns are "very good people raising their family who made a bad decision, a reckless decision." He then gently encouraged them to remember that "God probably works through other people, some of them doctors."
I have no sympathy for these lunatic parents, but neither am I much interested in seeing more prosecutions for parental neglect. Denying life-saving care to children is already a crime; what is gained by sending these parents to jail for 25 years instead of six months? Does anyone think that would put an end to faith-healing cults?
My reaction to all of this is colored by general horror I feel about the interference of the state in family life. The power to take a child from its parents is one of the most awesome and frightening powers of the state, on par with the power to wage war. I think we should be very careful how we use it. The standard of proof involved should be the same as the standard for conviction of a serious crime, or commitment of an adult to a psychiatric institution. Sometimes leaving children with unfit parents is a price we simply have to pay for freedom.
Advocates of more government involvement in family medical care, like Turley, dwell on cases where the diagnosis seems clear and the child's condition is treatable. But that isn't always the case. Doctors make mistakes all the time, and sometimes there are real questions about what kind of care should be given, or whether we should give any care at all. I don't have enough faith in the medical system to hand over decisions about health care to doctors or hospital administrators.
What about a case in which a child has a disease that is 90% likely to be fatal no matter what doctors do? Can parents decide that the child should die at home instead of spending his or her last months in the hospital?
Can the parents of deaf children be forced to get them cochlear implants? Can the parents of obese children be forced to put them on low calorie diets?
I am dealing in hypotheticals, I know, but I just want to lay out the kind of scenarios that give me nightmares. The assumption has to be that the parents are the best judges of the interests of the child, until their unfitness has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.