A tragic tale unfolded last week in an Alberta courtroom in which a man and woman were found guilty of failing to provide the necessities of life. I object to the correct legal term which is ‘necessaries of life’ and am referring to it only for the sake of accuracy. My question is what role does accuracy and correctness play when parents make a mistake – an honest error in judgment – and a child dies.
I am referring to the case of David and Collet Stephan who were found guilty of the charge listed above after their 18-month-old son died in 2012.
For readers who may not have heard of the case, the couple chose to treat their child with home (homeopathic) remedies thinking he had a cold or flu bug. Unfortunately, they did not realize that their son had meningitis and his condition worsened. For two weeks the parents used agents or remedies they thought would boost Ezekiel’s immune system, but improvements were followed by relapses.
The day before the toddler died, a family friend who was a registered nurse examined the child at home. While he was sleeping, the nurse-friend checked the child’s appearance and listened to his lungs, but nothing seemed alarming. She told the mother she had no idea what was causing Ezekiel to be sick, but it could be meningitis and he should be taken to a doctor. She said her advice was provided as a friend and was not a diagnosis because it did not appear like Ezekiel was seriously sick at the time. “It did not jump out at me that he was that seriously ill,” she testified in court. Prior to this, Ezekiel had apparently improved after receiving home treatments, but had relapsed.
The next day, David and Collet obtained a treatment for viral meningitis from a naturopathic doctor who did not examine the child. At home, Ezekiel suddenly quit breathing. His mother performed CPR and emergency services were immediately summoned. Realizing the situation was grave, the parents drove Ezekiel to meet the ambulance. At hospital, the child showed little brain activity and was put on life support. He died two days later.
I cannot imagine the grief, agony and prolonged mental anguish the parents endured after their son’s death. Unfortunately, the legal system is not generally concerned about such issues. When someone breaks a law – knowingly or unintentionally – a penalty is imposed upon the people involved, even if they had the best intentions in the world.
The Crown prosecutor told the jurors they need to ask (and answer) the question, at what point in time should the parents have taken their son to a doctor?
To answer that question correctly and accurately, a person has to step into the shoes of the parents. The Stephans obviously do not run to a doctor every time one of their children has a runny nose or is a little under the weather. Childhood illnesses are a fact of life that everyone has endured and dealing with them and their undesirable consequences will continue for generations to come.
Getting back to the prosecution’s question about when should Ezekiel have been taken to hospital, it is obvious that hindsight is 20-20 (picture perfect – absolutely clear). There is no doubt he should have received medical attention earlier, but there is no guarantee it would have saved his life. Despite the best efforts of medical professionals, people (including children) die everyday in hospital. There are no guarantees of health or rejuvenation in this life. Instead we hope for best possible outcomes based on the information available and the action taken.
Every person makes a myriad of daily decisions based on our education, finances, belief system and circumstances at the time . . . and we all make mistakes, errors in judgment or simply do not make the best possible decision. Is that a crime? It certainly is now according to Crown prosecutor Lisa Weich.
Speaking of Ezekiel’s parents, the prosecutor said, “They definitely, definitely loved their son but as stated in our closing arguments, unfortunately sometimes love just isn’t enough.” Outside the courtroom, she expounded saying parents have to follow a standard of care as defined by criminal law.
While people grieved with the parents about the jury’s decision, a multitude of individuals have been quick to condemn the parents and pronounce even stiffer penalties on them such as death.
In an interesting twist, Ezekiel’s father wrote a letter to the jurors on his facebook page. It states, “I deeply love each one of you and appreciate the tremendous sacrifice you have made over the last eight weeks. I only wish that you could’ve seen how you were being played by the Crown’s deception, drama and trickery that not only led to our key witnesses being muzzled, but has also now led to a dangerous precedent being set in Canada. The flood gates have now been opened and if we do not fall in line with parenting as seen fit by the government, we all stand in risk of criminal prosecution.”
He concluded his letter by saying “The flood gates have now been opened and my main concern is no longer for Collet and I, but rather for Canadians as a whole. May Heaven help us all.”
While looking at the comments people posted, this one caught my eye. “So where are the charges against the parents of Makayla Sault? The 11-year-old Native girl whose parents took her off treatment for leukemia and sent her to Florida for ‘alternative treatment’? She died also.”
I leave this column wondering how neglect and criminal action can correctly and accurately apply to loving parents who do the best they can for their children.