READING, Pa. – The parents of a 2-year-old Pennsylvania girl have been spared jail time in the pneumonia death of their daughter after vowing to seek medical care in the future for their other children.
Jonathan Foster, 35, and Grace Foster, 34, were sentenced Wednesday to five years' probation on involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment convictions in the November 2016 death of daughter Ella Grace in Upper Tulpehocken Township, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) northeast of Harrisburg.
Prosecutors said the couple declined to seek medical care on religious grounds and were seeking one to five years in prison for each parent. The defendants have been part of Faith Tabernacle Congregation, which instructs members to avoid doctors and pharmaceutical drugs.
But the Fosters told the Berks County judge Wednesday that since their trial, they have realized they were wrong.
"We felt that God could only work in one way," Jonathan Foster told Judge Theresa Johnson. And Grace Foster said: "We can't just follow a set of rules blindly."
Grace Foster said she doesn't blame the congregation but placed the responsibility on herself, since she held to what she had been taught.
"God is gracious and very merciful and will always give us a chance to repent," Grace Foster said. "That's what I believe God is giving us. He gave us this trial to give us a chance to change our ways and to give us a chance to live better before it's too late."
As part of their sentencing, the Fosters must take a class in children's illnesses and must provide health insurance for their six surviving children and any future children.
"I have been a mother for 12 years, and my children are everything to me," Grace Foster said. "We will bring our kids in to see a doctor, if necessary."
The judge cited those statements and the fact that the couple had been born into the church as factors in her decision to spare them jail time, but the sentence shouldn't be read as undermining the seriousness of the child's death.
"They followed the church and its beliefs, and because of those beliefs, they have come to experience a loss that none of us can understand and describe," Johnson said. "I don't think there is anything the court can do to punish them any more than their own actions have punished themselves."
After they were charged, the Fosters gave up custody of the six children who ranged in age from 1 to 12 years old, and the question of their return to the couple wasn't addressed in the court session.