RELIGION

Prosecutor: Pair charged in girl's death cited faith healing

A Pennsylvania couple who told police their faith forbids any kind of medical treatment were charged Wednesday in the pneumonia death of their 2-year-old daughter, becoming the latest members of their sect to be prosecuted for failing to take a dying child to a doctor.

Jonathan and Grace Foster attributed the Nov. 8 death of their daughter, Ella Grace Foster, to "God's will," according to a police affidavit.

They were charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment.

"Our laws recognize that you have a duty to care for your child's health and welfare, and we cannot justify a parent not seeking health care for their children when their children are ill," said Berks County District Attorney John Adams.

The couple lives in Upper Tulpehocken Township, near the village of Strausstown. It wasn't clear whether they have attorneys who could comment on their behalf, and a number listed for them was busy on Wednesday.

The Fosters were released on unsecured bail and are back home with their six other young children. Adams said the parents have agreed to take their children to doctors when they are sick. Child welfare officials are monitoring compliance, he said.

The parents told investigators they belong to the Faith Tabernacle church in Mechanicsburg, and that "as part of their faith they do not believe in any medical treatment," including medication and doctors, according to court documents.

In Pennsylvania, at least 10 children whose parents belong to various branches of the fundamentalist sect have died of treatable illnesses in the last several decades. Several church members have been prosecuted for failing to seek medical care.

The Fosters told authorities that Ella began showing symptoms of a common cold two days before she died, including lethargy and a sore throat. Her breathing eventually became labored, then rapid, and she died in her father's arms.

A forensic pathologist told investigators Ella would have had a 95 percent chance of surviving if she had been given a routine course of antibiotics. But Jonathan Foster told police "it would be frowned upon and against their religion" to have taken Ella to a doctor, an affidavit said.

Adams said Pennsylvania case law does not recognize a religious exception to a parents' duty to provide appropriate medical care. He warned that other members of the congregation would face prosecution if they fail to care for their sick children.

"I hope that the members of this church understand that authorities, such as our office, will not tolerate children not receiving medical care," he said.

No one answered the phone at a listing for a school connected with the Fosters' church.

About a dozen U.S. children die each year when parents turn to faith healing instead of medicine, typically from highly treatable problems, according to experts. At least one state, Oregon, explicitly banned faith healing as a murder defense after a series of deaths.