The parents of an 8-month-old boy who died of treatable pneumonia face a sentence of three and a half to seven years in prison after religion-based medical neglect. In just four years, Herbert and Catherine Schaible of Philadelphia have been held accountable for the deaths of their two children — Kent, 2, and Brandon, 8 months, after both reportedly suffered “eerily similar” symptoms and failed to see a doctor. A judge rejected the Schiables' claims that their religious beliefs “clashed” with child welfare laws in both faith-healing cases.
"My religious beliefs are that you should pray, and not have to use medicine. But because it is against the law, then whatever sentence you give me, I will accept," said Catherine Schaible to Judge Benjamin Lerner, The Associated Press reported. Judge Lerner — aware of Schiable and her husband’s conviction of involuntary manslaughter in their first child’s death — believed the couple’s beliefs are so ingrained that it put both of their children at high risk. "You've killed two of your children. ...Not God. Not your church. Not religious devotion — you,” Lerner said.
The Pennsylvania couple received a court order in 2011 which mandated the Schiables to take their children to get annual checkups and call a doctor if a child became ill. After the death of their son Kent, rather than have the family supervised by a Department of Human Services caseworker, a different judge assigned the couple to probation officers who were not trained to look over the welfare of the children. "Everybody in the system failed these children,” said Joanne Pescatore, Assistant District Attorney.
While the government protects the constitutional right to freedom of religious expression and practice, it is also responsible for enforcing child welfare laws. Believers of faith healing, like the Schiables, claim a clash exists when they choose other spiritual healing practices rather than traditional medical care to treat children’s illnesses. If the parents’ decision harms the minor, it is up to the courts to decide a balance between these two laws.
States that allow a religious defense to most serious crimes against children include: Idaho, Iowa, and Ohio with religious defenses to manslaughter; West Virginia with religious defenses to murder of a child and child neglect resulting in death; and Arkansas with a religious defense to capital murder, according to Children’s Healthcare, an educational charity. Approximately a dozen U.S. children die in faith healing cases each year, the AP reported.
The couple, third-generation members, and religious educators of the First Century Gospel Church in northeast Philadelphia, chose to neglect Pennsylvania laws during Brandon’s battle with pneumonia. The lung infection — caused by either a bacteria, a virus or fungi — could have 30 different causes, but more than one-third of cases are caused by respiratory viruses common in children younger than 5 years old. Difficulty breathing and a loss of appetite, says the American Lung Association, are some of the most common symptoms of pneumonia, all of which Brandon experienced.
The 8-month-old boy’s parents tried to comfort and pray over to heal his illness, rather than getting their son medical care. “We believe in divine healing, that Jesus shed blood for our healing and that he died on the cross to break the devil's power,” Herbert said in his police statement last year, the Los Angeles Times reported. The couple pleaded no contest to third-degree murder in Brandon’s death. His mother is free on bail, while Herbert has served about a year in prison.
The Schiables’ oldest son, 18, parents, family pastor, Nelson Clark, and other supporters sat in the court to hear Herbert’s lawyer, Bobby Hoof, call him a "a good man, a righteous man, a spiritual man." The couple has seven surviving children, while six of them are in foster care, some residing with relatives. The children are getting an education, medical, dental, and vision care now.