November 8, 2016. Election day in the U.S. – a day we were all, democrats and republicans alike, biting our nails hoping for the best possible outcome. Meanwhile, in Upper Tulpehocken Township, Pennsylvania, 2-year-old Ella Grace was coughing uncontrollably, feverish, and fighting for every breath. Within hours, Ella Grace would give up the struggle and take her last breath. The official cause of death was asphyxiation due to bacterial pneumonia, and was ruled a homicide by the coroner. Ella Grace’s mother says the cause of death was “God’s will”.
Ella Grace did not have the benefit of the antibiotics that would have almost certainly kept her alive and ensured her recovery. She was denied that option, and her only “treatment” was the oil her grandfather rubbed into her skin. Ella Grace’s parents are members of the Faith Tabernacle Church, where the grandfather, Rowland Foster, is pastor. As a tenet of their religion, they do not believe in medical treatment of any sort. And so, Ella Grace was left to die, and the parents, who had six other children, chalked it up to “God’s will”.
This story, brought to my attention by a dear friend, only came to my attention today because the trial for Ella’s parents, Jonathan and Grace Foster, began on Monday. Outside of the local news, coverage of the story has been largely non-existent. The grandfather was charged in Ella’s death early last year on the grounds of failure, as a member of the clergy, to report medical neglect and child abuse, a third-degree felony, but the charges were dismissed by District Judge Andrea Book at the preliminary hearing.
The parents are facing charges of 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. A brief summary of the case:
On Sunday, Ella Grace showed signs of a cold, with a sore throat and fever. She got progressively worse during the next two days, but neither parent felt it necessary to seek medical treatment. On Monday night, Grace called her father-in-law and pastor, Rowland Foster, who came to visit, rubbed oil on Ella Grace, and “prayed for her”. By Tuesday, Ella was significantly worse, throwing up, coughing, and struggling for air. Her mother, Grace, was frustrated, for she also had six other children, including an infant son to care for, so she called her husband, Jonathan, to come home from work to help out. When Jonathan arrived home, he lifted Ella into his arms, where she took her last breath a short time later.
State Trooper Brian Cipko questioned Grace Foster, and when he asked her if she knew what had caused her daughter’s death, she replied, “The way I think God just wanted her back. I believe that whether she died of this or we were in an accident that morning, He knew she was going to come home that day.” She also stated that there were no circumstances under which she would have sought medical help for her daughter. “It never enters my mind,” she said.
Matters involving religion are touchy and, as most of you know, I steer clear of them. This, however, I see as going beyond religion. This is the life of a child. But not only one child, for Ella Grace was not the first child to die because her parents’ religious beliefs kept them from seeking medical treatment, nor will she likely be the last. Adherents to the Fosters’ religion, predominantly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, have been charged in numerous other cases of children dying due to lack of medical care as a result of the parents’ religious beliefs:
- Justin Barnhart, age two, died September 1981, in Beaver Valley, Pennsylvania of a Wilm’s tumor which grew larger than a volleyball in the child’s abdomen. The parents, William and Linda Barnhart, withheld medical care from their son because of their religious beliefs.
- Five children of the Winterbourne family of suburban Philadelphia died of pneumonia between 1971 and 1980 without receiving medical attention. Roger Winterbourne, the father, stated: “When you believe in something, you have to believe it all the way. If you only believe in it part way, it’s not a true belief.”
- Baby Girl and Baby Boy Still, of Germantown, Pennsylvania, died in February 1989 after their mother, Deborah, gave birth to the twins without the aid of a doctor or midwife. After 8 hours the father noticed his 5 lb. Infant girl had stopped breathing, and he called a funeral home. The next day police took her 3 lb. Brother to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. The twins were born 6 weeks prematurely.
- Melinda Sue Friedenbeger, age 18 weeks, died of starvation and dehydration on April 25, 1991, in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Parents John and Kathy Friedenbeger reported she had had a fever, vomiting and diarrhea for the last several days of her life.
- Clayton Nixon, age eight, also died in Altoona, Pennsylvania, on January 6, 1991, of dehydration and malnutrition after contracting ear and sinus infections which caused continuous vomiting. He was four feet tall at his death but weighed only 32 pounds.
In Pennsylvania, more than 25 Faith Tabernacle children have died over the years. This church is not the only one that does not believe in medical treatment, but it just happens to be the one in today’s news. Nationally, some two dozen religious sects oppose all or most forms of medical care.
In the case of the Fosters, it is expected that a jury will render a verdict by the end of the week. The Fosters have relinquished custody of their other six children to the state of Pennsylvania.
The United States Constitution gives us the right to freedom of religion. It is certainly the right of Jonathan and Grace Foster to choose to belong to the Faith Tabernacle Church and to follow their tenets and beliefs. It is their right to choose not to seek medical help … for themselves. It was not their right to decide to eschew life-saving treatment for their two-year-old daughter who was not able to make the choice for herself. As the judge in the aforementioned case of Justin Barnhart ruled, “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they [the children] have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.” There are reasons that children of every species have parents, and the first, most important one, is to protect them. It is the opinion of this writer that the Fosters are guilty of murdering their daughter just as surely as if they had plunged a knife into her chest. Note: In 1983, Rita Swan founded Children’s Health Is a Legal Duty (CHILD), an organization that lobbies against state laws that protect parents who choose faith over modern medicine. In 1998, she decided to team up with pediatrician Seth M. Asser to investigate the child fatalities associated with faith healing. The two began reviewing the deaths of 172 children where medical care was withheld on religious grounds. Their study showed that 140 of these children would have had a 90% likelihood of survival had they received routine medical care.