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Abuse laws still vague when faith is involved

The recent death of a boy has child advocates asking whether the law addresses the issue properly.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 3, 1998


After Amy Hermanson, 7, died at her home in Sarasota, a victim of diabetes, her parents were convicted of child abuse and third-degree murder. They knew Amy was sick but said that their Christian Science faith kept them from seeking medical attention for her.

The conviction in the 1986 case was overturned in 1992 by the Florida Supreme Court. The court criticized the state's child abuse statutes, calling them so incomprehensible that no reasonably intelligent person could tell when his actions regarding his children cross the line into criminal behavior.

Today, six years after the Hermanson ruling, and two years after the court rendered the same judgment in another case, the old statutory language remains.

The impact, experts say, is chilling: Making a case against a parent -- even an abusive parent -- whose child dies for lack of medical attention is nearly impossible if the parent can show ties to a religion, even a tiny circle of like-minded friends, that disdains modern medicine.

It is not yet clear whether the Hillsborough County state attorney will bring charges against Kelly and Wylie Johnson of Melbourne, parents of the 2-year-old boy who died in Tampa after being stung 432 times by yellow jackets. The Johnsons, members of a religious group that shuns medicine, waited seven hours before summoning help for their son, Harrison.

But the case has caught the attention of child advocates statewide.

"You would think when the Supreme Court says your work product is defective, you would go back and fix it, but most of our legislators feel like they have better things to do than protect children," said Karen Gievers, a South Florida lawyer and child advocate who successfully sued the state on behalf of foster children.

"Children can't go to Tallahassee to lobby for themselves, so they don't get attention," added Gievers, who is running for secretary of state. "But what do you expect? These are the same legislators who dealt with school crowding by changing the definition of crowding."

Jack Levine, director of the Florida Center for Children, said his group will spend the next month researching what might be done to improve child abuse laws.

"Florida statutes are replete with inconsistencies when it comes to child neglect and religious exemptions," Levine said. "We are blinded to the fact that Florida is a magnet for any individual or group, sect or cult that wants to set its own rules of conduct. Questions of religious exemptions where the treatment of children is concerned are worthy of scrutiny and, we think, reform."

In legislative committees concerned with these statutes, there was confusion this week about what the Supreme Court justices found to criticize. The criminal portions of the child-abuse statutes make no provision for religious exemption. Such an exemption is found only in civil statutes.

"Someone found guilty of something like third-degree murder shouldn't have access to the religious exemption defense," said Stephanie Olin, staff director for the House committee on family law and children.

"That might be true, but the courts still consider (the religious exemption) as a criminal defense," said Chris Zawisza, director of the Children First program at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. "What the court is saying is the statutes are too vague to be enforceable against a parent who claims a religious exemption."

Florida is not alone in trying to sort out a maze of conflicts between freedom of religion and child abuse, according to Peggy DesAutels of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. DesAutels is a recognized expert on medical ethics and the First Church of Christ, Scientist.

"The Christian Science cases (involving obtaining medical care for children) everywhere bump up against spiritual exemptions," DesAutels said. "The resolution isn't clear."

Some suggest all spiritual exemption laws should be taken off the books.

"I'm not sure if that's the way we want to go as a society," she said. "Do we want to say medicine is the only alternative for health care when we know that prayer does help some people in some situations? And we need to be fair. When a doctor makes a horrendous mistake, and they do, they aren't charged with murder.

"If we had an infallible medical system, maybe we could depend on that alone. But we don't."

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