8 Nov 2010

Wisconsin lawmakers reconsider conflicting laws that fail to protect children from faith-based medical neglect

WBAY 2 ABC - Wisconsin October 8, 2009

Prayer-Death Case Prompts Lawmakers to Re-examine Child Abuse Law

By Kristin Byrne

The case of two Wisconsin parents who prayed for their dying daughter instead of taking her to the doctor is stirring up debate in the state Capitol.

Tuesday, Dale and Leilani Neumann were each sentenced to ten years on probation and up to six months in jail in Marathon County.

At the sentencing hearing, defense attorneys complained a state law on religious healing is too vague. The judge even addressed the matter.

"Changes may be made in the law, but the court can only live with the law as it is right now," Judge Vincent Howard said in court.

Two state laws have been highlighted because of the Neumann case. One of them is the reckless homicide law that doesn't include an exception for prayer. The second is a state statute concerning child abuse which does have an exception, saying it's not child abuse to treat an illness with prayer.

The Neumanns were convicted of second-degree reckless homicide.

According to lawmakers, the child abuse statute might soon be changed.

"There are two bills that have been introduced... One is to eliminate the faith exemption and one is to clarify the language," Assembly Majority Leader Tom Nelson told Action 2 News.

Brown County's district attorney says from what he sees, he supports re-examining the state law.

"I think what the Legislature apparently is looking at is try to eliminate and at least maybe send the message that you have to do what it takes to protect your child," John Zakowski said.

D.A. Zakowski said cases like the Neumanns' happen rarely, so the need to clarify the law hasn't been there.

Lawmakers say that's about to change.

"I would expect given this early debate that we might even see more bills, so this is going to be one of those issues that I expect will be hotly debated in the Legislature," Rep. Nelson said.

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New York Times - October 7, 2009

Wisconsin Couple Sentenced in Death of Their Sick Child


CHICAGO — A Wisconsin couple were sentenced to jail time on Tuesday for failing to seek medical attention for their ill daughter, renewing a debate in some circles over whether states should allow parents to practice spiritual treatments.

Corey Schjoth/Wausau Daily Herald, via Associated Press

Dale and Leilani Neumann greeted people in court Tuesday before they were sentenced to serve 30 days in jail each year for the next six years.

The parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, were ordered to spend 30 days in jail each year for the next six years and were placed on 10 years’ probation. Mr. Neumann, 47, and Ms. Neumann, 41, who live in Weston, in central Wisconsin, had been convicted of second-degree reckless homicide in August.

Their daughter, Madeline Kara Neumann, 11, died from untreated diabetes on March 23, 2008, the authorities said. When the girl became ill and could no longer walk or talk, her parents prayed for her instead of taking her to a doctor, prosecutors said.

Her parents could have faced as much as 25 years in prison. While on probation, the Neumanns must take the two surviving children who live with them to the doctor if they are seriously injured or sick, said Judge Vincent K. Howard of Marathon County Circuit Court, and the children must undergo periodic health checks.

Defense lawyers for the Neumanns said they planned to appeal the conviction because state law is not clear on the issue of spiritual treatment.

Prosecutors had asked for a three-year sentence. “I would have liked to have heard from both the defendants that they were sorry for what occurred and heard them accept some measure of responsibility,” said LaMont Jacobson, an assistant district attorney.

Several state lawmakers, meanwhile, have said they plan to introduce legislation to settle the issue. One bill, for instance, would remove religious exemptions for charges of neglect and abuse, while another would broaden the religious exemption to apply to other types of cases.

Shawn Peters, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied the nexus of religion and the law, said the Neumanns’ sentencing was not unusual.

Experts said there had been at least 50 convictions in the United States since 1982 in cases where medical treatment was withheld from a child for religious reasons.

“The sentences tend to be halfway punishments where you have relatively mild penalties imposed on parents who are found to be legally guilty of having caused a child’s death,” Mr. Peters said. “It underscores how uneasy we are both politically and culturally when it comes to regulating religious conduct even when the consequences are disastrous.”

Mr. Peters said the case also pointed out the ambiguities of state laws regarding such matters.

“Wisconsin is not unique,” Mr. Peters said. “Lots of states have similarly murky laws in this area that need to be clarified.”

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