The Oregonian - January 9, 2010
Oregon City trial raises new questions in faith-healing debate
By Steven Mayes | The Oregonian
When an Oregon City couple go on trial this week in the faith-healing death of their son, the case will raise a new wrinkle in Oregon's debate over religious freedom:
Can a juvenile's right to obtain medical treatment absolve parents of responsibility for providing health care to a sick child?
Jeff and Marci Beagley are charged with criminally negligent homicide for failing to provide adequate medical care for their 16-year-old son, Neil, who died in June 2008 of an untreated urinary tract blockage.
The Beagleys are also the grandparents of Ava Worthington, whose 2008 death prompted last year's high-profile trial of Ava's parents, Raylene and Carl Brent Worthington. Raylene Worthington, who is the Beagleys' daughter and Neil's sister, was acquitted in that case. Her husband was convicted of criminal mistreatment.
The entire family belongs to Oregon City's Followers of Christ Church, which shuns medical care in favor of prayer, anointing with oil and laying on of hands.
Oregon law once allowed parents to avoid homicide charges if they relied solely on spiritual treatment and their child died. The law changed in 1999, mainly due to the church's long history of children dying from untreated medical conditions.
The Beagley trial will cover some of the same ground as the Worthington case, such as the clash between a parental rights and child-protection laws. But Neil Beagley's age presents a new challenge for prosecutors.
Under Oregon law, children 15 and older are allowed to obtain medical treatment without parental permission. That fact raises compelling questions for jurors in the Beagley case.
How can teenage children make informed decisions if they've never been to a doctor, have no understanding of their condition and have been raised to reject medical treatment? Do children have the right to refuse medical care? How much responsibility do parents have for the health of teenage children?
Lead prosecutor Greg Horner and the Beagleys' attorneys, Wayne Mackeson and Steve Lindsey, declined to be interviewed for this story.
At a hearing last month, the Beagleys' attorneys said that Neil knew he could go to a doctor at any time but decided to rely on the faith-healing practices endorsed by his family and his church.
Mark Cogan, who represented Brent Worthington but not involved in the Beagley case, offered an analysis from the defense perspective.
"Oregon law gives him (Neil) the authority to have medical care or not," Cogan said. "It's not for the government to decide. Neil was old enough to make his own decision, and he very clearly made his own choice."
Church members offer a circular argument that prosecutors must crack.
Since Followers rarely go to doctors, most have no medical records, which makes it hard to document the progression of an illness. Their lack of medical experience, they argue, also leaves them unaware of symptoms that may indicate a medical emergency.
The Worthingtons, for example, said they thought their daughter had a bad cold rather than a life-threatening blood infection. The 15-month-old child also had a growth on her neck that would swell to softball-size lump, but it was never evaluated by a doctor.
If the Beagleys contend that Neil also showed no signs that he was nearing death, prosecutors will be challenged to show otherwise.
An autopsy determined that Neil had a constriction where his bladder empties into his urethra, a typically painful condition that caused his kidneys to stop extracting urea from his bloodstream and triggered heart failure.
Dr. Cliff Nelson, Oregon deputy state medical examiner, said the condition may have been congenital and that Beagley had suffered repeated episodes of blockage and pain, probably throughout his life. The condition was treatable, Nelson said, but there was no apparent medical intervention.
Yet no one outside the tight Followers of Christ circle got close enough to assess Neil's condition during the weeks before he died.
Neil was home-schooled. His world and personal relationships revolved around the church. There were no teachers, Boy Scout leaders, sports coaches or outsiders who would have routinely observed him.
It will be left to the prosecutions medical experts in pediatric urology and kidney disease to describe the symptoms a reasonable person would have noted as the boy's condition deteriorated in his final months.
The Beagleys also are expected to say they relied on statements from an Oregon Department of Human Services worker who met with the family more than two months before Neil died.
The state's child welfare hot line received two calls about the Beagleys' children in March 2008. The callers reported that Kathryn Beagley, then 14, had serious health problems, including a kidney infection and that Neil had been ill with a possibly life-threatening condition.
Jeff Lewis, a DHS worker, met with the family twice and determined no intervention was necessary. Neil said he was getting over a cold and did not want to see a doctor, Lewis testified at hearing last month.
After talking to Lewis, the Beagleys said they believed they were providing adequate care for their son and not violating the law, the Beagley's attorneys said last month.
It is unfair to penalize the couple for following the advice of a government employee and, in fact, it is entrapment, said the lawyers, who asked Clackamas County Presiding Judge Steven L. Maurer to dismiss the charges.
Maurer denied the motion and said the question should be posed to jurors.
That process starts Monday when jury selection begins.
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