by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.
In 2012 Alberta, Canada, 19-month-old Ezekiel Stephan died after allegedly being given supplements with an eye-dropper from the family’s own nutritional supplement company. His parents David (32) and Collet (35) Stephan called for an ambulance after Ezekiel stopped breathing. The parents allegedly gave their son a variety of remedies include maple syrup, juice, and an apple cider vinegar concoction. The child was airlifted to a hospital and after five days he was removed from life sustaining treatment. The cause of death: meningitis.
Jury selection began on February 29. The parents are standing trial for “failing to provide the necessaries of life” and they have pleaded not guilty. On Facebook, under an account called “Prayers for Ezekiel”, the parents have posted pictures of the toddler as well as their two other children. A post appeared on Wednesday slamming Monday’s CBC article that brought attention to this case. In this post, David states that the CBC got the facts wrong in terms of the home remedies used, and that they feel persecuted by the media and by comments on their social media. In a post over last weekend, they complained about being attacked on social funding sites where they are attempting to raise money for their defense. Many of their posts are about their forgiveness of their critics and about the power of god’s love to set them free.
The comments on their Facebook page are fairly pointed and critical: “good job slaughtering your child,” “You should have sought medical attention,” and “the sheer negligence and stubborn ignorance demonstrated in this tragedy is just cause for your punishment of now being forever haunted by how you FAILED YOUR CHILD” are a few examples.
A jury will decide the facts of this case. The ethical aspects of the case are also worth examining. The parents appear to have been loving, caring, and acting in what they believed was in their child’s best interest. All of those are virtues that North American cultures expect of parents. In addition, we expect parents to teach their children morality, how to treat other people, and to pass on their own spiritual and religious beliefs. We charge parents with protecting the welfare of their children, keeping them from harm, getting them help when needed, ensuring for their education and giving them the skills and opportunities to succeed in life.
The question then becomes, what is needed to grow, flourish and succeed? For some parents, it might be mainly religious faith and a rejection of modern scientific medicine. For others it may be a grounding in science and the modern world.
The Stephans are not the first parents to run afoul of the government and medicine in their choices. Two years ago I wrote about several cases where parents went on the lam to keep their children away from cancer treatment. A year ago was the case of Cassandra C, a 17-year-old girl who did not want cancer treatment and was removed from her home, hospitalized and forced to have treatment. Cassandra was successfully treated and upon completing her treatments was allowed to return home. This past October, I wrote about 5-year-old Julianna Snow whose parents allowed her to refuse medical treatment and instead to “go to heaven.” In these cases the children were viewed in the media as being controlled by their parents. Their cancer was not viewed as anyone’s fault and in most cases there are not steps to avoid childhood cancers.
In the above cases, the child eventually got treatment and/or the decision was made in consultation with health professionals. Most importantly, no one died. Ezekiel did die which aesthetically makes this case darker and more serious. His parents watched him decline over a long period of time and their believes had them reject going to medicine until the very end. Meningitis is curable if caught early enough and preventable with a vaccine..
If only there were a code of ethics on what is due children. In some cases, there is. The National Foster Parent Association has created a code of ethics for foster parents. Among its tenets is “meeting physical and mental health care needs.” The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says that children have a right to have their health care needs met and governments “should ensure that children survive and develop healthily.” The health of children is mainly the responsibility of parents, but also of governments and communities.
The principles of nonmaleficence and beneficence tells us that we should not cause harm to others and that we should take action to prevent harm from happening. There must be a line at which one’s faith takes a backseat to saving a child’s life. That choice is on the parents. But what about the fault of the community? Did no one notice this sick child? Did no one else call child protective services or talk to the family? The UN says that the government has an obligation to address health care needs of children and in a democracy, we all are the government.
Demonizing the parents is an easy way for us to look at this situation. But this story is about more than their tragic choices, it’s about a community that failed to protect this child, question the parent’s choices and to report if they had suspicions. Cassandra, Julianna, Parker and Sarah did not die. Ezekiel did. Our social contract to protect children from harm and to provide an environment for the opportunity to flourish was breached. The parents are paying the price in the courts and in their loss. But what lessons can we all learn? Who will hold the community responsible?