Couple's children become wards of the state

The Register-Guard, Oregon/Apr 17, 2012

Six Creswell siblings became wards of the state Monday as their parents await trial in connection with the death of their teenage son, who died in December after the couple allegedly chose prayer over medical care for his undisclosed treatable ailment.

Brandi and Russel Bellew face second-degree manslaughter charges in the death of 16-year-old Austin Sprout. But they may continue to care for their remaining children under a state-supervised "in-home safety plan," Lane County Circuit Juvenile Court Judge Eveleen Henry also ruled in a brief afternoon hearing.

Terms of that plan include the presence of a state-approved "safety provider," immediate notification of the state Department of Human Services if any of the children has "medical symptoms, illness or injury" and calling 911 if any medical emergency arises.

The family attends the General Assembly and the Church of the First Born in Pleasant Hill, which generally believes in using prayer instead of medical care to treat illnesses. The safety monitor, Del McCracken, is a fellow church member, but "believes in seeking medical care and advocates for the children to have medical care," the plan states.

The Bellews must also take turns being with the children, because they are forbidden contact with each other under terms of their pre-trial release from jail. Court records show that Russel Bellew, 39, is living in Springfield, while Brandi Bellew, 36, is living in the couple's Creswell house. His attorney, Bob Schrank, told Henry that Russel Bellew agreed that all the children should remain in their Creswell home.

The children are a blended family, created when Brandi and Russel Bellew married after both were widowed.

Her first husband, Brian Sprout, died of sepsis in 2007 after sustaining and failing to seek medical treatment for a leg injury, a Lane County Sheriff's Office lieutenant said when the Bellews were arrested in February. Brian Sprout was the biological father of three of the six children placed in state custody Monday, as well as of Austin Sprout.

A state child welfare worker revealed Monday that Russel Bellew also lost a spouse from a prior marriage, Randi Dawn Bellew, who died in Sisters in 2008. She was the biological mother of two of the remaining children. The sixth child was born to Russel and Brandi Bellew in 2010.

A newspaper obituary listed no cause of death for Randi Bellew, who died at age 31. It said she was a member of the Crooked River Ranch General Assembly and Church of the First Born, and that "she was preceded in death by daughters Elizabeth and Emma Bellew."

Monday's hearing was packed with more than two dozen relatives and supporters of Brandi and Russel Bellew. Many were fellow church members who bowed their heads and appeared to pray during the hearing.

State child protection caseworker Jennifer Long Perkins told the judge that the Bellews' remaining children range in age from a baby to a 17-year-old. As Henry called their cases by name, Perkins recommended that each be removed from their parents' legal custody because the Bellews caused their sibling's death by failing to provide Austin Sprout with "necessary medical care."

Henry's subsequent orders to that effect were entered by default, as the Bellews declined to challenge the assertions until they have resolved their criminal case. If convicted of second-degree manslaughter, they would face mandatory minimum prison terms of six years and three months. No trial date has been set.

Perkins told the judge Monday that state caseworkers "believe the other children are safe in the parents' care," under the supervised plan.

Rebecca May, the six children's court-appointed attorney, called them "extraordinary" — "charming, well-mannered, gracious, intelligent and interesting."

She added that the family "has a lot of support."

"When I was there, four other adults were there helping the mother," she said.

In their only objections during the hearing, Schrank and Brandi Bellew's lawyer, Hugh Duvall, challenged as unnecessary the state's request that both parents undergo a comprehensive psychological exam.

But Lane County Deputy District Attorney Lisa Christon said the state had a solid basis for seeking the exams.

"By no means are we suggesting that these parents are crazy," she said. "But we are asking the family to make a significant, life-changing decision about a practice (faith-healing) they have long upheld. We want a professional opinion that they are able to do that."

Henry ordered the exams, but allowed the couple to delay them until their criminal case is resolved.

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