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Parents Charged in Death of 7-Year-Old Seth Johnson Chose Prayer Over Medical Care

Seth Johnson (Photo: YouCaring)

A Minnesota couple who chose prayer over medical care have been charged with child neglect after their adopted 7-year-old son died of pancreatitis, although the boy’s autopsy was unable to determine whether his parents’ actions contributed to his death.

CBS Minnesota reports 39-year-old Timothy Johnson and his wife Sarah Johnson, 38, of Plymouth, 11 miles (16 km) northwest of Minneapolis, were charged by summons last week with a single count of child neglect in connection with the death of their son Seth Johnson in March 2015.

According to court documents, Seth was covered in bruises and pressure lesions when he was found “unresponsive on his mattress and covered in vomit” by emergency responders. The boy’s cause of death was determined to be “acute pancreatitis and possible sepsis.” In interviews with law enforcement, the Johnsons said they noticed “substantial changes” in Seth’s behavior in the weeks leading up to his death. He stopped sleeping, would take hours to finish meals and suffered from shaking fits. He also developed blisters, markings and lesions on his legs and feet. According to his parents, the boy would throw himself down the stairs, hitting his head.

Despite all this, the Johnsons told investigators they never took the dying boy for medical help because “they had issues with going to doctors.” Eschewing most pharmaceutical medication, the Christian fundamentalists believed they knew better how to treat their son. After concluding Seth suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), the Johnsons increased the boy’s vitamin intake, treating his wounds with Neosporin and medical honey.

It didn’t work —when the Johnsons arrived home from a wedding on March 29, 2015, Seth, who had been left in the care of an older brother, was laying unresponsive on the floor. He didn’t revive when they prayed for his health. The next day, the child was dead.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman released a statement explaining the neglect charge is the most serious he could file because “the medical examiner could not make the link between the cause of death and the actions of the parents.”

“We spent a year reviewing all the evidence,” Freeman explained. “We consulted with a child-abuse pediatrician who reviewed all of the medical information and investigative files to advise us on this one simple question: Could he link the parents’ actions, or inactions, to Seth developing pancreatitis and dying? He could not.”

Still, Freeman had harsh words for the Johnsons:

We cannot comprehend how a parent would leave a very sick seven-year-old to the care of a 16-year-old so they can go away for a weekend. Nor can we comprehend how the parents refused to come home Sunday morning to care for their sick child when they were notified of his serious condition. Nor can we comprehend why the parents did not call an ambulance Sunday night to immediately obtain medical help when they finally got home.

“The Johnsons, of course, are presumed innocent,” concluded Freeman. “But we are going to use all of our resources to prove them guilty of neglect of a child resulting in substantial physical harm and ask for the strongest penalty allowed under the statute and sentencing guidelines.”

Joe Daly, Law Professor Emeritus at Hamline University in St. Paul, said this is not “an open-and-shut case” — Minnesota is one of 38 states that protects parents who exercise their beliefs, possibly even in the event of a child’s death.

“If you are doing this based on religious principles, unless you have operated in an extremely negligent, reckless manner, you are exempt from prosecution,” Daly told CBS Minnesota.

On a YouCaring page launched to raise money for the Johnson family, public reaction was mixed, but overwhelmingly negative. “You virtually murdered your son. You actually tortured him! And now you want money? Anyone who gives you a penny should be consigned to hell,” fumed Frances Lefkowitz Bookheim of Maryland. “It’s so sickening that there are parents out there who want children and can’t afford to adopt but you have how many kids and just continue to adopt more and obviously had a hand in your son’s death,” wrote Amelia Gray Weatherly of Nashville. However, Angie Pitel Adelman of Maple Grove, Minnesota called the Johnsons her “walking angels.”

“You are quite honestly the most selfless people we have ever had the privilege to know,” wrote Adelman. “Always giving everything of yourself, from your time, to all you have, to helping those who need the most support in the community.”

The Johnsons have not been arrested. They are due in court on January 31. If convicted, they face a maximum of one year behind bars and a $3,000 fine.

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