Several days ago a mother of a 15-month old child in Canada posed a question with a lengthy explanation of her child’s situation in an anti-vax, natural health group on Facebook. The mother asked “Does anyone have experience treating pneumonia naturally?” Her story was featured on the public page Things Anti-Vaxers Say (TAVS), and people on that page were rightfully outraged. The story went like this: she had already taken the child to the doctor, got a diagnosis of bacterial pneumonia and a prescription for antibiotics, but for two days she had chosen to give various alt-med remedies rather than the prescription. She now wanted to bolster her confidence in rejecting the meds. Apparently a number of people who commented in the alt-med group suggested that the mother should definitely give the kids antibiotics (good for them). Bacterial pneumonia in a 15-month old is not something to play around with, they said. Meanwhile, outraged persons on the pro-vax side promptly reported the mother’s confession of intended medical neglect to the proper authorities in her region. TAVS received a response from the area’s child services thanking them for the report. Subsequently, a group that hosts similar discussions warned its members to be more discrete with their questions so as not to “incriminate” themselves, and also, a reminder that they shouldn’t try to give medical advice over the internet. It is tragic.
It is tragic because the anti-vax group wasn’t issuing a reminder that parents should seek medical advice from actual medical professionals with the skills and experience to examine their children. The advice was merely: don’t talk about criminal neglect in a way that might incriminate you. These parents, for the most part, are probably assuming that their remedies will save their children and so in the absence of their own confessions of willful neglect, there will be no evidence of wrongdoing. Should their attempts to play doctor fail, and the child’s condition degrade to the point where the parent’s concern overrides the need to feel satisfied with their alt-med experimentation, then the hospital or morgue where the child ends up will certainly have substantial evidence of willful neglect with or without the parent’s confession. In some cases, however, that may not be enough to hold the parents accountable. Ultimately, it’s the child who bears the consequences so the only thing that can truly help is timely intervention.
I’ve participated in anti-vaccine internet forums where parents have a paranoia complex so severe that many think it would be best to lie to a doctor about a child’s vaccination status rather than confess that the child is not vaccinated. To them, the perceived risks of that confession were estimated to be higher than the risks of giving an incomplete, inaccurate medical history. This kind of reasoning only makes sense to comfortable liars whose need to feel secure with their poor decision supercedes concern for their child’s life. A delay in proper diagnosis of some vaccine preventable illnessses can be the difference between life and death.
Anti-vax and alt-med parenting groups operate with a cult-like secrecy and paranoia. While many will discuss their ideas openly, they tend to be hush hush about the sources they rely on for their information, knowing that their sources won’t be accepted as legitimate– or their interpretation will be shown to be wrong. Amongst their own, they are fully comfortable exploring the wildest hypotheses, subjecting their children (and sometimes their unsuspecting spouses) to dangerous experimentation, and badmouthing the organizations and government agencies that attempt to set standards for medical care and parenting.
As a homeschooling mom and a Christian, I’ve been exposed to a bizarre world of medical care denial in which vaccine rejection is just one slice of that pie (albeit a large one.) I’ve had sincerely concerned parents warn me about the dangers of CPS, the need to join the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) to protect myself, and repeat fairytales about CPS kidnappings that occur “because the baby was breastfed!” or “because the mother had a homebirth!” or “because the parents didn’t vaccinate their children!” or “because we homeschooled!”
The fantasy stories that compel homeschooling parents to pay hundreds of dollars a year for legal insurance are usually either originated or recirculated by the same organization that stands to benefit from this fear. The mythical CPS is a frightening, all-powerful arm of government running madly across the landscape hunting children to devour and families to destroy. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. It’s a bureaucracy as vulnerable to abuse and indifference as any other.
I’ve tried to gently respond that I’ve spent many hours in the juvenile courts as a child advocate. I’m a mandatory reporter. I’m trained to know what abuse and neglect look like, and I am aware that most investigations are based on reports of mere suspicion and do not lead to any further action. I know CPS workers and they are diligent, but overworked professionals. They don’t want to harass families for no reason. They don’t have the time. They don’t have the energy, and despite the myths, most of them don’t have any malice for good parents, religious parents or parents who are just a little eccentric.
When parents are refusing to treat their children for serious, diagnosed conditions like bacterial pneumonia and they are crowd-sourcing medical advice from people who have no medical training, then any action taken by CPS on behalf of the child would be justified. After all, these parents killed two young children by refusing to get medical care for treatable pneumonia. Pneumonia kills. Antibiotics should be used and prescribed cautiously, and if a doctor prescribes them for a known bacterial infection of the lungs, then that’s a clue that they’re probably necessary. If CPS didn’t respond to reports of this type of medical neglect, then they’d be failing in their duties.
I’m glad that groups like TAVS took the steps necessary to at least try to protect this child. While sometimes the groups that mock anti-vax parents can go to extremes in their ridicule, this is one good example of how valuable such a group can be in helping to protect children who are truly the victims of their parent’s poor decisions.