Baby's death probed in faith-healing flock

Martinsville, USA - Police are investigating the death of a baby whose parents belong to a church that preaches reliance on faith and prayer for healing.

Sarah Leeman died Saturday, a week after she was born prematurely at the mobile home of her parents, Louis and Patricia Leeman, Martinsville.

The Leemans are members of the General Assembly and Church of the First Born at Morgantown, whose members eschew modern medical care in favor of prayer to deal with health problems.

If it's found that Sarah died of an untreated medical problem, she would be at least the fourth child of church members to have died under such circumstances since 1998.

In May, a Johnson County jury found a couple from the church -- Maleta, 30, and Dewayne Schmidt, 35, rural Franklin -- guilty of reckless homicide for refusing to seek medical treatment to help their gravely ill newborn daughter in 2003.

The latest death has not shaken the deep spiritual convictions of church members, said elder Thomas Nation, 72, Morgantown.

"I don't question our faith," he said. "(The Scripture) said the just will live by faith. . . . We are law-abiding citizens as long as it don't conflict with the word of the Lord. When it conflicts with the word of the Lord, then we have to obey God."

Capt. Jeff Buskirk of the Martinsville Police Department said investigators are trying to determine whether the child's death was preventable.

"And if there was any neglect involved," he said.

Buskirk said no decision on possible criminal charges would be made until next week, after he completes the investigation and confers with Morgan County Prosecutor Steve Sonnega.

The baby was born two months premature and weighed less than 3 pounds, Buskirk said. He said the Leemans told him they did not seek medical care. The couple could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

"The family did not feel like the baby was having problems," he said.

They called in church members Friday to pray for Sarah.

"I was called over there when it started having a little bit of problems," Nation said.

"We prayed for it. The little thing had a bowel movement and everything settled down. They thought it was perfectly all right."

Nation said a friend who remained with the family after helping with the birth later discovered the child having breathing problems.

Louis Leeman called 911 about 2:30 a.m. Saturday.

"They said they called because it stopped breathing and they wanted the baby to live," Buskirk said.

The Leemans, who have three older children, had another infant daughter die in July 2002. A death certificate shows the baby was stillborn at the couple's home; no autopsy was performed.

Dr. Dean A. Hawley of the Indiana University School of Medicine performed an autopsy on Sarah Leeman, but Buskirk declined to release the results. Morgan County Coroner Dan Downing did not return calls seeking comment.

Nation said the coroner told him and others who came in contact with the baby that the child had a contagious disease and they needed to get shots.

Nation said he was opposed to getting the injections, which goes against his faith, and "will never do it."

Good survival rates

Dr. Niceta Bradburn, a St. Vincent Hospital neonatologist who testified in the May trial of the Schmidts, said survival rates for babies born two months premature are extremely good when medical evaluation and treatment are available immediately.

An important factor is how far into a pregnancy the baby is born, and doctors measure in weeks, not months, she said. A normal pregnancy is 40 weeks.

Bradburn said that at 28 weeks of pregnancy, which could be the low end of what some would call seven months, a baby born without an infection or congenital birth defect in a neonatal intensive care unit has a 98 percent chance of survival.

Bradburn said that even with a home birth at 28 weeks, if paramedics are called and quickly assess the child and administer medications to help potentially immature lungs, the survival rate should be about 70 percent.

Death negates immunity

Reliance on prayer does not make church members immune from prosecution in Indiana.

In some nonfatal neglect cases, Indiana law allows religious conviction as a defense. But in 1986, the Indiana Supreme Court made a distinction between child neglect that results in serious injury and neglect that results in a child's death.

"Reckless homicide does not have a statutory defense excusing responsibility for a death which resulted from what our legal system has defined to be reckless acts, regardless if these acts were conducted pursuant to religious beliefs or otherwise," the court ruled in Hall v. State.

"Prayer is not permitted as a defense when a caretaker engages in omissive conduct which results in the child's death."

Johnson County Prosecutor Lance Hamner, who oversaw the Schmidt case, said the jury's guilty verdict sent a message: "You don't sacrifice your child in the exercise of religion," he said.

"A person has a right to engage their faith and ask for blessings and healing, but when a doctor clearly could help, we have an obligation to get that help," he said. "The law requires us to protect innocent and helpless children."

Nation says church members are directed by Scripture to live by their faith and not to use doctors -- and true believers follow that path even if it puts them afoul of the law. In the end, he said, they must account to God.

Nation said thousands of people are killed each year by doctors because of malpractice, and many others die in hospitals, yet people tend to focus on cases such as those involving the families at the General Assembly and Church of the First Born.

"Out of the church that is scattered around over Indiana, there is probably 500 families. I doubt over the last 50 years there has been 10 to 15 babies in those 500 families that has died," he said. "And I assure you that in the hospital they haven't got a better percentage."

Rita Swan, president of the Iowa-based Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, disagrees. She said that since 1975, at least 41 children in General Assembly of the Church of the First Born have died as a result of what her organization terms "faith-based medical neglect."

That number excludes 91 other deaths in the Followers of Christ, which Swan says is a splinter group that was once part of the General Assembly of the Church of the First Born.

Swan was concerned that another death had come so soon after the conviction of another family in the same church.

"You would think the prosecution of the Schmidts would make these people more cautious," Swan said.