Questions still linger over Carlton boy's death

The Wenatchee World/August 26, 2009

Carlton - Zachery Swezey lay in his parents' bed, his breathing labored.

When he fell ill March 15, the 17-year-old Carlton boy's parents, Greg and JaLea Swezey, thought he had food poisoning. But over the next three days, they realized it was something else, perhaps the flu. He'd had a fever, and was vomiting with severe diarrhea.

During those three days, aunts, uncles and grandparents came to his bedside to pray. On March 17, his father did not call a doctor or an ambulance. Instead, he called elders from their church. They came to the house and anointed Zakk with olive oil, and prayed for him as Zakk's family waited outside in the hall. Members of the Church of the First Born, the Swezeys believe in faith healing.

At midday on March 18, Zakk told his mother he loved her, and asked for his father to come to his bedside.

Shortly before 1 p.m, his breathing slowed. His hands got cold and turned a bluish color. With both of his parents at his bedside, Zakk Swezey died.

An autopsy later revealed the Pateros High School student died of a ruptured appendix.

Greg and JaLea Swezey did not return a phone message on Tuesday, and about a week after his death declined to talk to a reporter about what happened. Details about the circumstances surrounding Zakk's death come from reports by Okanogan County Sheriff's investigators Josh Brown and Gene Davis. The documents were among others released Aug. 21 in a public records request by The Wenatchee World.

The Swezeys felt release of the information would violate their right to privacy, and sought to prevent disclosure with a lawsuit in Okanogan County Superior Court.

Last week, Judge Jack Burchard ruled in favor of releasing the records.

He wrote, "The investigation raises legitimate and important concerns about public health. The prosecutor has yet to announce whether criminal charges will be filed. This tragic death may involve important questions of parental freedom and responsibility as well as religious freedom."

Those issues have been explored in criminal cases across the nation, when children have died after parents attempted faith healing, and prosecutors decided to file charges.

In Swezey's case, Okanogan County Prosecutor Karl Sloan said the sheriff is still investigating this case, and his office has not yet received its report. "Once it's wrapped up and completed, we'll look at it and determine if charges are warranted," he said.

The day his son died, Greg Swezey told sheriff's investigators he knew Zakk would die 10 or 15 minutes before the teenager passed away. His condition had gotten much worse about an hour and a half before Zakk died, he told the investigators, and he realized Zakk was exhibiting some of the symptoms of death he'd seen when older church members died.

He did not consider calling an ambulance, he told them. But both he and his wife told investigators that they gave Zakk that option, although it was not clear from records when the choice was offered.

He also told deputies that his children knew generally that they had the choice to see a doctor. Zakk had seen one the previous year for a sports physical.

"We don't force our kids, our kids have a choice. At no time did Zachery ask to go to the doctor," Brown wrote in notes from his interview with Greg Swezey. He also told investigators that his oldest son once broke his leg, and they gave him a choice of going to the doctor, but his son chose not to. Swezey put a cast on his leg, and later they saw a physical therapist who confirmed his son had broken his leg.

Most states, including Washington, have child abuse laws that allow some religious exemptions for parents who do not seek medical treatment when their children are sick.

Washington's law specifies that a person treated through faith healing "by a duly accredited Christian Science practitioner in lieu of medical care is not considered deprived of medically necessary health care or abandoned." Other religions are not mentioned.

Rita Swan, president of CHILD Inc., a nonprofit group formed to protect children from abusive religious and cultural practices, called Washington's law "awful" and said it would not stand up if challenged because it discriminates in favor of one religion, and not others.

CHILD stands for Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty.

Swan, in Sioux City, Iowa, was aware of Swezey's death when contacted Tuesday, and said four other children in three states other than Washington have died so far this year in what she calls faith-deaths.

"There are many small Pentecostal groups that want Jesus to be their doctor, and that consider illness a tempt of faith. But they just don't have the legal muscle to do what the Christian Scientists do," she said, explaining why Washington's law protects only one religion.

Her Web site includes a list of 17 churches that "have let children die since 1980 because of their religious beliefs against medical care," and the Church of the First Born is among them.

The church apparently follows the Book of Mormon and was founded by prophets Joseph Morris and George Williams, but the church's Web site was not specific, and reliable sources could not be found.

Swan said what struck her most about Swezey's death is the agony he must have endured. "The pain that comes with a ruptured appendix is just excruciating. It's something the boy should not have had to suffer," she said.

She said the fact that Zakk was 17 years old should not make any difference to the prosecutor, because legally children cannot seek medical care until they are 18. "We believe children should be protected until the age of 18, and protected from their own beliefs, if necessary," she said.

The United States doesn't allow anyone younger to drink, or sign a contract, or face execution, she noted.

But Steven Green, a law professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., said he thinks Zakk's age will be a major factor in the prosecutor's decision. So will the fact that his parents told investigators they gave him the choice of seeking medical attention, he added.

Green is also director of the Center for Religion, Law & Democracy, and has extensive courtroom experience in cases involving freedom of religion.

He said even though Zakk was legally a minor, and under his parents' care, "Once you get into those older teen years, there is more of an assumption that children can make their own decision," he said.

And prosecuting someone for raising their children with a religion that believes in faith healing raises serious religious liberty concerns, he said.

"It may end up being a factual determination of whether this child was under undue influence, pressure not to seek medical treatment, or whether he was old enough to make this decision," he said.

Another detail that could be important is whether Zakk became unresponsive as a result of his illness before he died, and would have been unable to ask for a doctor, which would send that responsibility back to the parents, Green said.

And, he said, the recent acquittal of a Oregon City, Ore., couple charged with negligent homicide for attempting to heal through prayer their 15-month-old daughter, could weigh heavily in the prosecutor's considerations.

Ava Worthington died of pneumonia in March 2008, and her parents belong to Followers of Christ Church.

Her father, Carl Worthington, was convicted by the jury last month of misdemeanor criminal mistreatment and was sentenced to two months in jail, but found innocent of the more serious charge.

Green noted that the case was expensive to prosecute, and despite what appeared to be a strong case, jurors were sympathetic to the couple, who otherwise took good care of their child.

"It probably will make a lot of prosecutors at least think about whether these cases are worth pursuing," he said.

That's particularly true if the purpose of prosecuting someone is to prevent others from doing the same thing, the law professor said.

"People who believe are not likely to be deterred by a criminal prosecution," he said, adding, "Some people who believe in spiritual treatment, the reliance on prayer and other spiritual aspects in light of an illness is an indication of their faith, so the consequences of engaging medical care is a major violation of their religious tenants," he said.

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