OREGON CITY, Ore. (RNS) When the trial of Dale and Shannon Hickman begins this week, the curtain again rises on a familiar tragedy: the death of a child and the parents whose unwavering faith in divine healing may lead them to prison.
The Hickmans are members of the Followers of Christ, an Oregon City faith-healing church with a long history of children dying from curable conditions because parents rejected medical care in favor of spiritual treatments.
The Hickmans are charged with second-degree manslaughter.
They are the fourth couple prosecuted in the past two years by the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office for failing to seek adequate medical care for a child. In the previous cases, all but one defendant was convicted and sentenced to jail or prison.
The trial over David Hickman’s death could last five weeks, focusing on prenatal care, midwifery practices and the impact of a bacterial infection on a fetus. As in past faith-healing cases, religious freedom, parental rights and the government’s responsibility to protect children will find their way into the fray.
The jury must consider a couple of key questions, most centrally whether the Hickmans adhered to community standards of care for a medically fragile newborn.
In previous faith-healing cases, the children’s medical conditions developed over days, months or years. Jurors in those cases concluded there were obvious warning signs that parents willfully ignored. This time, death came quickly.
David Hickman was born two months premature in September 2009. He weighed 3 pounds, 5 ounces. His lungs were underdeveloped, and he lived just nine hours. The Hickmans say David appeared healthy before taking a sudden dire turn.
The birth was attended by female church members who are considered midwives but it is unclear whether they have any medical education. An autopsy found that the baby died of a bacterial infection of his feeble lungs.
In pretrial hearings and documents, defense attorneys said Dale Hickman held his newborn son, prayed and anointed him with oil, and the boy died minutes later. Even if the Hickmans had gone to a hospital or called an ambulance, the tiny baby would have died before help arrived, they argue.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, contend that the Hickmans failed their son and caused his death because of their faith-based aversion to doctors and mainstream medical care.
The Hickmans have never been to a doctor, prosecutors said, and they never considered calling for help. “At the time the baby took his first breath,” the Hickmans had an absolute obligation to provide adequate care, Deputy District Attorney Mike Regan said in a pretrial hearing.
Defense attorneys John Neidig and Mark Cogan will argue that the Hickmans did nothing wrong, that the boy’s death was unforseeable and almost instant, and that the Hickmans were singled out for prosecution because of their religious beliefs.
On June 9, Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a law that removed the remnants of Oregon’s legal protection for parents who rely solely on faith healing to meet their children’s medical needs.
(Steve Mayes writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.)