Parental Liability for Failure to Seek Care for their Child

A verdict was rendered yesterday (Feb. 2, 2010) in Oregon City Oregon finding Jeffrey and Marci Beagley, Oregon City’s Followers of Christ Church, guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the death of their 16-year-old son, Neil. Their son died in June 2008 due to a chronic undiagnosed urinary blockage. Neil became significantly ill about one week before his death due to renal failure. He became weak, could not get out of his bed, and had pain in his abdomen and restricted breathing. Jeffrey and Marci Beagley’s Christian faith called for them to seek healing from the Lord and thus as Neil became worse his parents attempted to heal him with prayer, anointing with oil and laying on of hands. It was uncontested that earlier intervention would have saved his life.

A physician and bioethicist, Dr. Douglas Dickema, testified at trial that it was reasonable for the parents fail to seek medical attention because: "If you don’t think your child is dying, you may not bring them to the emergency room." For example, he said: "It may take three days of (a child having) seizures to get them into my emergency room."

Dr. Dickema is the chair of the Committee on Bioethics of the American Academy of Pediatrics. It seems that Dr. Dickema did not testify as a bioethicist but as a physician who represented that he knew what was a reasonable expectation of when a parent should seek medical attention for their child. Legally, however, the standard is what a reasonable parent would do in similar circumstances.

It was often repeated during the trial that Neil himself told his parent that he did not want to go to the doctor. Aside from the fact that he was 16 years old, he did not have the benefit of being informed as to the risks, including death, of refusal of treatment.

 

A study at the University of California at San Diego from 1975 to 1995 found that of 175 children 140 children died because treatment was withheld based upon religious beliefs.  There was a >90% survival rate of the children who died if treatment had be instituted.

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