Is an anti-vax couple accountable for their son's death?

Did Ezekiel Stephan have to die?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 9, 2016 8:08PM (EST)

 (AP/Damian Dovarganes)
(AP/Damian Dovarganes)

Four years ago this month, David and Collet Stephan endured the worst thing any parent can face: the loss of their child. Their son Ezekiel was only 19 months old when he died of meningitis. Now, they are on trial in connection with his death. The Canadian couple have pleaded not guilty to "failing to provide the necessities of life."

The parents were originally charged in 2013. Police claim that the boy had been ill for "a couple of weeks" but only called an ambulance when he stopped breathing. He died in the hospital five days later. Before then, the family reportedly gave him remedies including "water with maple syrup, juice with frozen berries and finally a mixture of apple cider vinegar, horse radish root, hot peppers, mashed onion, garlic and ginger root." On their Prayers for Ezekiel Facebook page, though, the family claims that their experience has been misrepresented, saying, "The idea of boosting an immune system with maple syrup, juice and frozen fruit is so illogical that I am left here shaking my head." Several news outlets have also reported that the couple "run" the Truehope Nutritional Support supplements company, but in a statement yesterday, Truehope asserted, "David is an employee, he does not own Truehope nor sit in any management, supervisory, or leadership role." Anthony Stephan, Truehope's founder, is however David's father and was Ezekiel's grandfather. Ten years ago, the company was found not guilty of distributing the supplement Empowerplus without a drug identification number. The company claims its products can alleviate symptoms of a variety of conditions, including mental illnesses and autism. A bottle of 120 Empowerplus pills costs eighty dollars.

In an audio tape from an interview after hospital staff called police, Collet reportedly said that "A friend, who is a nurse, told the couple the boy likely had meningitis" and that "They prefer naturopathic remedies because of their family's negative experiences with the medical system." Meningitis is rare but serious condition that can be prevented with the meningococcal vaccine, usually given as part of the regular childhood vaccine schedule.

The friend, a registered nurse and midwife who assisted Collet in the home births of her children, took the stand Tuesday. She said that she'd been summoned to the home and did a brief exam of the child, and suggested it could be meningitis but added, "I have no idea what it could be and I think you should take him to a doctor."

The couple — who have three other children — is currently fundraising to cover their legal expenses with a fund they call "Stand 4 Truth." And on their Help the Stephan Family blog, they claim they are "defending against the vaccine agenda." They say that "the agenda" is to "create the legal precedent that when a child falls ill, parents who chose not to vaccinate have a greater onus to seek mainstream medical attention sooner than parents that do vaccinate, and if any harm befalls the non-vaccinated child from an illness that there was a vaccine for, the parents can be held criminally liable." Yet that doesn't appear to be the case at all. They are currently being investigated not for failing to vaccinate but for whether or not, while their child was seriously ill, they acted quickly enough and responsibly enough.

Believe me, I understand that children can get sick and terrible things can happen. For five days last month, my teenage daughter was in the hospital with a potentially life-threatening trio of infections, as she went from what looked like the flu to sepsis in a terrifyingly short span of time. But you know what pulled her out of it? Medicine! I love medicine; medicine is amazing. Because today my kid is in school and tonight I'll be yelling at her for not putting her laundry away and that is because of the wonder of antibiotics. And if there's an agenda attached to that experience, sign me up.

Most of us are authentically trying to do what's best for our children. I believe the Stephans did that for their son, and are still trying to do what's best for their other children. Yet as Crown Prosecutor Clayton Giles asks, "At what point should the accused have taken Ezekiel to the doctor? I’m not saying they killed him, abused him or ignored him—they loved him." But, the prosecution says, "They didn’t take him to a doctor until it was too late — far too late."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Anti Vaccine Movement Canada Collet Stephan David Stephan Truehope