Mariah Walton is usually bedridden, and when she’s not, she has to carry around an oxygen tank. She has had screws in her bones to hold her breathing device in place, and she has no options for recovery besides a risky heart and lung transplant. This may be a familiar scenario to find in a nursing home, but Walton is only 20 years old and has a condition called pulmonary hypertension. Her situation could have been prevented if doctors had closed the small congenital hole in her heart in her infancy or childhood.
Walton’s parents, however, are fundamentalist Mormons who are against modern medicine and believe that illnesses should be healed through faith and prayer alone. It’s for this reason that Walton would like to see her parents prosecuted.
Religion and science are often butting heads, and navigating between the two has always been difficult for lawmakers. Many would see Walton’s parents’ actions as medical neglect, and in many states, they would be charged with a crime. In their home state of Idaho, however, laws exempt faith healers from prosecution. Only six states still offer this religious shield from felony crimes, largely because several deaths within faith-based healing communities caught the attention of the media.
Idaho’s laws did not change, though, which allowed Walton’s parents to treat her with “alternative” medicine and prayer. Even in the years after her infancy, Walton could have gotten treatment before irreversible damage was done, but her parents kept the family off the grid. Walton did not even have a social security number or birth certificate before she left home two years ago.
“I would like to see my parent’s prosecuted,” Walton told The Guardian. “They deserve it. And it might stop others.”
Walton explained her situation in a panel discussion called “Medical Neglect and Child Mortality in Idaho,” according to MagicValley.com. She said her mother did not even want to look at her after she went to see a doctor: “She said, ‘Don’t talk about it, I don’t want to hear about it.'"
Idaho’s governor, C.L. “Butch” Otter, agrees with Walton. He wrote a letter to House Speaker Scott Bedle and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill asking them to consider a legislative workgroup to take a look at the issue.
“I understand it is a challenge to balance the desire to protect religious children while still being supportive of religious freedom, but I believe we must give this issue a thorough examination,” he wrote.
The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act was signed into law in 1974 to help health care workers and activists combat child abuse cases, some high-profile cases of which had come to light in the 1960s. The law provided federal funds to assess, investigate, and prosecute cases of child abuse or neglect, and it set a minimum definition of what the terms mean. There’s a catch in the law though: It contains a provision that says parents who believe prayer is the only way to combat illness are exempt from prosecution. Only six states have not changed their policies to revoke this protection.
It remains to be seen how Walton’s case and Otter’s letter will affect Idaho law, but Walton is clear on her position.
“I feel it is not OK for people to be allowed to ignore modern science to save lives,” she said. “I had no vote and no power over my parents, and they were legally allowed to let me get to this point.”