Boston -- It may be the most unusual case of a state trying to take custody of a child: the parents will not even confirm that the baby exists.
For weeks, the state of Massachusetts has been wrangling with a couple who belong to a tiny religious group called the Body. State officials say the couple, Rebecca and David Corneau, had a baby late last year, and a court has ordered the couple to turn it over for fear it is in danger.
The dispute's roots extend back three years. State authorities hold members of the Body responsible for the death of two babies in 1999. They say one, a 10-month-old boy, was starved by his parents, members of the sect. Prosecutors say the other child, a son of the Corneaus, died minutes after a home delivery because his lungs were not cleared.
"Unfortunately, the history of this family, and yes, I'll use the word, this cult, is severe and replete with situations in which children were put in harm's way," said Judge Kenneth P. Nasif of Attleboro Juvenile Court in a contempt order against the Corneaus on Jan. 17 for refusing to turn over the child. "The body count stands at two in this group. We don't want it to climb to three."
The state's highest court is expected to rule next week on whether the Corneaus should be jailed pending appeal of their contempt order.
Based in Attleboro, in southeastern Massachusetts, the Body is a fundamentalist Christian sect with about 20 members who reject modern medicine to such an extent that they will not use prescription eyeglasses. They also mistrust the government.
In 1999, a former sect member gave the police a diary with an entry saying that 10-month-old Samuel Robidoux died because his parents withheld solid food, contending they were acting on God's instructions. While investigating, the police learned about the death of Mrs. Corneau's baby, Jeremiah.
Eight sect members were held in contempt and jailed for refusing to cooperate with the inquiry. Mr. Corneau accepted an offer of immunity for himself, his wife and three other sect members, and led the authorities to a park in Maine where the babies were buried in pine coffins.
Samuel's mother, Karen Robidoux, and his father, Jacques Robidoux, the sect's leader, are charged with murder. The Corneaus were not charged in Jeremiah's death, which they say was a stillbirth. Rebecca Corneau is Jacques Robidoux's sister.
But the authorities then placed the Corneaus' four other children with relatives who do not belong to the sect, saying that the children were bruised from being swatted with a wooden paddle. When Mrs. Corneau became pregnant again in 2000 and refused to have a prenatal exam, the authorities took her into custody until she gave birth, and then placed the baby with a foster family.
In late 2001, when Mrs. Corneau, 33, was in court on an unrelated matter, the authorities noticed she appeared to be pregnant. The state Department of Social Services has sought to confirm the birth and take the child into custody.
J. W. Carney Jr., the Corneaus' lawyer, accused the state of engaging in a witch hunt motivated by the Corneaus' religious beliefs. "The department intends to take away any child that the Corneaus acknowledge exists," he said. "If a family knew in biblical times that the Egyptians were planning to seize their first- born son, they would act the same way that the Corneaus are acting."
The state has placed 14 of the sect's children in foster care.
David A. F. Lewis, a lawyer appointed to represent the Corneaus' child in the appeals, said a justice of the Court of Appeals found on Jan. 23 that there was enough evidence that a baby had been born to justify the contempt finding.