Canadian parents convicted for killing son by giving him maple syrup and other nostrums for meningitis

April 27, 2016 • 1:30 pm

On March 10 I told the story of David and Collet Stephan, a couple from Alberta who killed their son Ezekiel, afflicted with meningitis, by withholding medical treatment in favor of bogus “alternative” medicine. Here’s what the CBC said when reporting on their prosecution for criminal neglect. (Ezekiel died in 2012):

In a bid to boost his immune system, the couple gave the boy — who was lethargic and becoming stiff — various home remedies, such as 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 as his condition deteriorated.

Court heard the couple on tape explaining to the police officer that they prefer naturopathic remedies because of their family’s negative experiences with the medical system.

The Stephan family runs family runs Truehope Nutritional Support, a dubious food-supplement company.

Ezekiel had bacterial meningitis, which is highly responsive to antibiotics and can be easily cured if caught early. If left untreated, death is the almost invariable outcome, as it was in his case.

But good news for rationalists: the CBC just reported that David and Collet have been convicted by a jury, which deliberated only 9 hours, for “failing to provide the necessaries of life.” I hope the sentence, levied in June, will be a stiff one, for if ever there’s a case for punishment levied to deter others, this is it. Other children regularly die for faith-based healing, whether it’s religious or based on the Stephan’s “faith” in alternative medicine. To me, it’s the same as murder through neglect. In this case the maximum sentence is only five years, but it will likely be lighter. As the CBC reports:

Shannon Prithipaul, the past president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, thinks it would be unlikely for the couple to receive “something close to the maximum.”

“It’s not like they were not feeding their child or they were purposely withholding medication that they knew would assist the child but didn’t,” she said.

That’s bogus. They were purposely withholding medication that any rational person would know is the right thing to give such a child. They didn’t even take him to a doctor until he stopped breathing, but he was already dead! If these parents get off lightly, it will be a signal to others in their position—First Nations parents who treat leukemia with herbs or other religious parents who substitute prayer for medicine—that they might suffer no legal consequences at all.

In fact, this case is exactly like religiously-based withholding of medicine, for in both situations the damage is based on faith. That the conclusion of experts who have watched this case, and a major contention of my book Faith Versus Fact. “Faith” is belief without sufficient evidence to convince most rational people, and whether that be based on religion, ideology, or belief in “alternative medicine,” it’s all the same, and all equally culpable in a case like this.

Here’s another CBC story on the Stephans; click on the screenshot to go to it:

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 12.43.22 PM

Why is this such a revelation? Do people not see the parallel between faith in God and faith in maple syrup? How surprising is this?:

“It’s like a religion to them,” says Tim Caulfield, research director of the University of Alberta’s Health Law and Science Policy Group. He has written the books The Cure for Everything! Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness and Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

“Studies have shown that some people are more likely to believe these kinds of things. They’re more likely to believe in the supernatural. They’re more likely to be religious and they’re more likely to buy the entire package of complementary and alternative practices.”

But Caulfield is right, and makes a good point:

Caulfield says individuals can not only find information that backs their own personal beliefs online, but entire cyber communities that agree with them.

“When you start insulting and say there’s no evidence to support homeopathy, there’s no evidence to support these kind of whole remedies — you’re not just insulting the practice — you’re insulting the individual. It becomes part of their belief system.”

Caulfield says it isn’t easy to get people to change.

“When people are faith-based, which so many of these practitioners really are and so many people that use this, they can’t change their mind, because then they’re losing part of their identity package.

“They’re losing part of who they are.”

Caulfield wants a national dialogue about what he calls pseudo-science.

“It’s almost like there’s this strange, pseudo-science correctiveness … that stops us from talking honestly about what these guys provide.”

And that “pseudo-science correctness” is even harder to dislodge (and more easily excused by the public) when it’s based on religion. Even if we can’t change people’s minds, though, we can make sure the law gives a stiff corrective to faithheads like the Stephans. And we can also recognize that homeopathy, acupuncture, crystal healing, and other such nonsense are just as faith-based as religion.

Yes, the David and Collet Stephan were people of faith, but that’s a term that should always be taken not as the usual compliment, but as a profound criticism.

David and Collet Stephan, and the son they killed

h/t: Taskin, Diana MacPherson



50 thoughts on “Canadian parents convicted for killing son by giving him maple syrup and other nostrums for meningitis

  1. Poor kid.
    I bet the couple get off light too. Its gross neglect, and knowingly doing so irrespective of their belief in bullshit remedies that have no place in treating anyone.
    Homeopathy and associated pseudo-medicinal practices make me rage on so many levels, mostly because they make money off the gullible, con men and women to the core.

  2. Alternative medicine isn’t just like a religion; many forms incorporate supernatural beliefs in vitalism, mind/body dualism, spirituality, magic, the naturalistic fallacy, and the Power of Positive Thinking. There’s also the same tendency to separate the world into light and dark, and separate people into those in on the conspiracy … and those resisting it.

    1. I am recovering from a bout of AMSAN, Acute Motor and Sensory Axional Neuropathy, likely brought about by a childhood infection of chicken pox which my overeager immune system went after. (No evidence of such antibodies have turned up in my spinal tap, but the usual response from an activated immune system. However, that is the only suspect I know has set up shop in my nervous system.)

      When I got to the hospital I felt like I was dying for the first time in my life (malaise)- Indeed, I have been told it can kill by attacking the breathing apparatus (and possibly by free coupling the hearth to its own means).

      Don’r you know it. Just before it got so bad (I was atypically slowly sickened, yay for being unique – well, not really) that I needed visit the hospital stat, a coworker suggested “alternative medicine” against my nerve pains. Not that I could have taken her advice due to the debilitating pain and increasing motor dysfunctionality, but anyway in reflection it feels like the AM community tried to kill me.

      Instead I am a poster child for childhood vaccinations* and prompt medical care.

      * Which I am wishing was available at the time, as I lie in bed and shout my lungs out when the pain killers stops working.

      1. Glad to hear that you’re recovering! Sounds like an ordeal.

        One of the most dangerous aspects of so-called alternative so-called medicine is that most of its proponents mean well. They honestly do feel like they’re giving you a useful, possibly even life-saving, tip. The Stephans probably meant well. And even people who consider alties misguided often allow good intentions to outweigh the results, and so they give them a pass.

        But meaning well in these cases is coupled with conspiracy thinking, anti-intellectualism, abysmal ignorance, and the sort of arrogance which throws caution to the wind in hopes of getting special credit. That sorta takes away the free pass.

        1. I have seen the behaviour of many of these alternative medicine folks, and I’m not really willing to give them the benefits of the doubt anymore.
          “Note that I will be attacking the ones that have made alternative medicine into a lifestyle, not those that try it once for fun or as a last effort when they’re already dying.”

          Many of them don’t “mean well”. A lot of these parents call the ambulance and go to the doctor immediately when they get sick themselves.
          They then refuse to give their children the same treatment. For some of them, their children are subjects of experimentation. They can test out the effect of their belief on them without endangering themselves.
          When the child dies, they then get all the attention they’ve been craving.

          Yes, I sound cynical, but I know that some of those parents actually are psycopaths and there’s little room in me for forgiveness for such things anymore.

          It’s also worth noting that proponents of alternative medicine do take conventional medicine as well (they only refuse it to their children). Every case I’ve read about/seen in reality with someone claiming to be cured from their cancer by alternative medicine shows that they had been getting surgery and/or chemotherapy at the same time. So they’re usually not only ignorant, they’re direct liars.

          1. You could be right. I haven’t observed alties treating their children any differently than they treat (or don’t treat) themselves, but then again I don’t have a broad base of experience.

            1. It’s not all of them of course, but depressingly many from what I’ve seen and read about the subject. It may be more common with the faith healing people than alties though.

    2. Sastra – you are right, often alt-med and religiosity merge. I’m in Calgary and I listened to an alarmingly parent-sympathetic Alberta radio reporter’s coverage of the child’s death. The reporter on scene said that the “loving parents sang hymns and recited prayers while waiting for the jury’s verdict.” When it was announced, there were reportedly shrieks and sobs in the courtroom.

      Before the death, the boy’s family had consulted an RN who told them to get professional help because she suspected meningitis. The family had been using maple syrup to treat the kid. Even at a “health food” store where they brought the little boy on a trip to buy echinacea, the storekeeper suggested they get help. By then, the boy was so stiff from meningitis that the mother couldn’t get him into his car-seat, so she placed him on a mattress. The father only called 9-1-1 when the child quit breathing. The toddler died soon after. By the way, the parents have several other young children.

      1. Some people have suggested that the stories of prayer and maple syrup are clouding over the fact that both parents were deeply embedded in a family-owned snake-oil company. These weren’t do-it-yourselfers. The odds that they didn’t give any of their commercially available nostrums to their own sick child is probably slim-to-none.

    3. Ever since Romanticism came along a century and a half ago, in the form of a transcendental philosophical and literary/artistic movement, western culture has been apt to reify ‘nature’ into Nature, making it the principal source of the good, both in a religious (Book of Nature) and mundane (‘all natural ingredients’) sense. We have, many, many of us, generation after generation, fallen for this like falling in love.

      But capital-N Nature is a social construction, nothing more than one of our human fictions, while small-n nature is the natural world entire, which is the only world, and of which we are a troublesome animal species threatening ‘nature’s’ ecological balance.

      Sometimes functions of ‘nature’ are harmful to Homo sapiens (snakebite), sometimes beneficial (marijuana), but mostly they are nothing to us at all. Yet our memes demand that we call nature Nature, Mother Nature, our Great Benefactress.

      In such an ineffably sad case as this Canadian boy’s, I have to ask what may seem a rather cold question. Do his parents think their son, dead from their willful ignorance, has a soul and is therefore now ‘in a better place,’ so that they have really done him a favor in killing him?

      1. Yes, you’re right about the romanticizing of nature, Emerson and Thoreau and the like and their influence on modern alt culture. But it still requires a willful and selective ignorance. Science is part of the natural world too. The antibiotic for meningitis is a natural product, just not one that is derived directly from a plant.

        1. Thanks for your comment, ploubere (Pooh Bear. . . ? Ah, I love you already!). What I hope I was implying is that Post-Romantic Romantics will think up just about anything–especially anti-science ‘anythings’ nowadays–to spare transcendence from the philosophical scrap-heap. I like your point about antibiotics being natural, because human made and therefore a part and a product of ‘nature.’ Yet there are products and then there are products: antibiotics have to be efficacious in healing infections or they are either improved or discarded; but the thoughts behind a social construction like ‘Nature’ just go on deluding those who need its emotional comfort.

      2. Years ago I self-identified as a Transcendentalist, so I know whereof you speak.

        As for your ‘cold’ question, I recently asked one of my New Age friends (who was at that time training to be a faith healer) what she thought about children who die from problems which modern medicine could cure, but their parents chose instead to use prayer and/or alternative “natural”/spiritual remedies.

        If your question is cold, then her answer was chilling. She told me she had a hard time explaining this situation to me because I “still believe in death.”

        Nothing bad ever really happens — especially if it directly involves spiritual Truths. God is All; God is Perfect; All is all Perfect.

        1. Appreciate your comment, Sastra. Platonism, what a disaster for Homo sapiens. I’m sure you know Raphael’s Sistine Chapel painting that shows Plato and Aristotle striding out of a sky-filled arch toward the viewer. Plato has his right hand pointed heavenward, while Aristotle holds his left, palm downward, in a moderating gesture.

          By 1500, Plato had won the metaphysical agon between them. Today’s Catholics well know that Plato was a proto-Christian. Probably Orthodox rather than Roman, but a Christian nevertheless.

          1. I think it’s hard to separate the Platonism of Plato from the modern day distortions or interpretations of Plato — let alone the Church’s attempt to appropriate him. In her book Plato at the Googleplex Rebecca Goldstein argues that a lot of his philosophical thought experiments were taken at face value, and many of his ideas were embraced as Truths instead of considered as ideas. Maybe. As she put it

            “Above all, my Plato is the philosopher who teaches us that we should never rest assured that our view, no matter how well argued and reasoned, amounts to the final word on any matter. And that includes our view of Plato.”

            1. I find Ms. Goldstein’s words astonishing, In dialogues like ‘Phaedo’ and ‘Phaedrus’ Plato’s mouthpiece, Socrates, leads his interlocutors to a ‘that’s that, then, folks’ conclusion about the nature of reality, epistemology and the human soul. All three subjects are founded in pure idealism.

              If she’s thinking about a more mundane Plato, as citizen of Athens, then I wonder what she makes of the ‘Republic,’ surely one of the most depressingly totalitarian of all western utopias.

              1. Goldstein is well worth reading on the topic — and won the Dawkins Award a few year ago. She doesn’t whitewash Plato, but she does think he’s far more nuanced than often portrayed. I won’t say her book astonished me, but it did surprise me.

              2. There are some people who think that the Platonic Socrates is *not* Plato’s mouthpiece (despite the fact that when the dialogues were performed, Plato took the role, Aristotle sort of says so, etc.).

  3. I don’t get the difference between something like this and starving a child.
    Someone could surely claim that they have deeply held beliefs that children need no sustenance other than the power of prayer. Would people be so understanding if such a person killed their child by refusing him/her food?
    What’s the difference?

  4. Unfortunately governments in Canada (& some US states) are complicit in the failing of these parents by accrediting colleges to oversee Naturopaths (thereby lending credibility that isn’t based upon evidence of efficacy).

    The Alberta College of Naturopaths is highly unlikely to discipline the practitioner the parents visited prior to Ezekiel’s death. Clearly this child was let down by multiple areas of society.

    1. This is a major issue and I’m surprised it was not emphasized by the defense. The provincial government has tacitly endorsed the practice of naturopathy by giving it regulatory approval in 2012. How the crown can condemn someone for using a ‘service’ they have approved of is simply beyond me.

      I agree completely with the lack of evidence for the effectiveness of naturopathy. That is a reason to outlaw it. However, if you ignore this and tacitly give credence to the practice by regulating it, I cannot fathom how you can take someone who uses it to court.

      1. Unfortunately the Health Professional Act, under which the College is accredited, dances around any reference to efficacy. It just lays out the manner in which the College is to operate and regulate the “professional” Naturopaths.

        This is the problem across Canada, Naturopaths are self-regulated by Colleges accredited by Governments. These Colleges set professional standards and conduct (under the same model as Colleges of Physicians.) This is how they gain credibility without any evidence of efficacy (especially when you consider homeopathy is a main component of their “education” curriculum, if you can call it that.)

        Since there is nowhere that a claim of efficacy is made, there isn’t a means to challenge the existence of the College based on evidence that Naturopathy is bogus. A major failing of our various Governments.

        1. If the parents used a practitioner, and that practitioner recommended the treatment that the parents went to jail for using, then its a pretty reasonable thing to say maybe the practitioner should face charges too. Seems reasonable to say that the guy who recommends “give them XYZ” is just as culpable as the person who gives XYZ.

          In the US, if the state didn’t act against the practitioner, then the other route would be for the parents or other relations to sue the practitioner, claiming there is a preponderance of evidence that the parents followed their advice as an advertised and licensed professional.

        2. Yes, I agree. The issue is that the government, put in place by the people and to act for the people, allowed self regulation. This was not done on an evidence base that naturopathy works but rather a foundation of convenience – people want it and so it must be good.

  5. Nix on Crick. He’s still alive. I think as a matter of principle we should never have have living figures on the money or stamps. Feels too “Dear Leader” for me, and you know it will be corrupted over time.
    Imagine the Trump fiver and see if you don’t agree.

    1. Nix on Crick. He’s still alive.

      That’s a remarkable achievement for someone who was cremated in 2004.:)

      And wrong thread, I think.

        1. What a Truly Evil Idea[TM]. I say we go for it. It’ll be worth it for the look of horror on Resurrected-Crick’s face when he becomes beatified. After all, no one had (has) more contempt for religious hierarchies than he did (does). Serves him right for selfishly coming back like that when many others can’t.

          I can even provide the second miracle. Years back praying to Crick found my glasses for me. True story. I had been looking for my glasses for ages, and then expostulated most fervently “Where the Crick and Watson are my Cricken glasses?”[1]. And I found them immediately.

          [1] I was trying to not swear in front of my kids so that they could have the guilty pleasure of learning those words in the appropriate place — the school yard.

      1. Maybe thinking of Francs Collins? I have to do a mental double-check over that couple all too often.

  6. One of the things that annoys me the most about these stories is that the killers always insist they’re good parents who love their children. Personally, I don’t buy it. Their beliefs, as is so often the case, are more important to them than their child, and in this case the fact he died proves it.

    Another example of this manifesting itself is the millions of parents worldwide who won’t have anything to do with their children for reasons like apostasy, sexuality, gender identity, marrying outside their “race” or religion, or a dozen other things. Most claim they nevertheless love their children.

    Faith causes incalculable damage.

    1. I don’t question the sincerity of their love – lots of crimes are committed out of love. When good loving people do bad illegal things, they should go to jail. That’s what the blindfold the statue of Justice wears is all about – equal justice for anyone who does the same act. Bob Cratchit kills someone, Ebeneezer Scrooge kills someone, the penalty should be the same. These parents are telling us they’re Bob Crachits? My answer is “okay, sure you are – you still go to jail.”

      1. Good way of putting it Eric. I should have put it more like that. I suppose part of what I’m saying is that loving your kids doesn’t mean you’re automatically a good parent. Also, I when it comes to children, loving them often means putting their needs first and these parents are putting their beliefs before the needs of their children.

  7. ‘Why is this such a revelation? Do people not see the parallel between faith in God and faith in maple syrup?’

    My faith in maple syrup is renewed each Sunday morning when I pour just the right amount over oatmeal pancakes. But that’s ‘faith’ in its ability to make them taste better (along with a modicum of butter, to be sure).

    Wouldn’t use them for bacterial infections, though, even one as homely as sinusitis. You’re right, PCC(E): naturopathy is like religion, very close indeed to one of the latter that Mark Twain raged about, ‘The Church of Jesus Christ COMMA Scientist. Not just healer, but ‘scientist!’

  8. That’s bogus. They were purposely withholding medication that any rational person would know is the right thing to give such a child.

    For the most part, I agree with you. Any modern 1st world citizen above the age of about 8 should know that antibiotics help cure infections.

    OTOH, people also take them for viruses, because they have no real clue about the sorts of things antibiotics are good for and not good for. And people stop taking them long before they should because they basically think if they’re feeling better, that must mean the disease is gone. So I think we still have some way to go in educating our public on what they should already know about modern medical cures. I don’t excuse these parents, but I think for every case like this where a kid dies there are probably hundreds where a kid gets improper or incorrect treatment due to parental incompetence (rather than intentional mistreatment). Because the parents simply didn’t know what they should. Better education across the board would, I think, stop a lot of such incidents.

  9. “can not only find information that backs their own personal beliefs online, but entire cyber communities that agree with them.”

    Not only can you find them, but the algorithms used by Google, and Facebook, based on your search, and like history, will cater search results, and facebook feeds that align with those beliefs. Automated confirmation bias.

  10. “I hope the sentence, levied in June, will be a stiff one, for if ever there’s a case for punishment levied to deter others, this is it.”

    I think current research (I’m no scientist) shows that it’s certainty, not severity, of punishment that deters crime. I believe losing a child is an extremely severe punishment.
    I worry because this couple has other children who may be at risk. Should the court consider removing these children from the family home?

    1. I had picked up the same point.
      “Deterrence” doesn’t work, because in most cases, the person you want to deter does not expect to get caught. In cases like this, quite likely because the genuinely (id delusionally) did think their treatments would work. In more conventional criminality, because they thought they’d out witted the cops, come up with a plan of unparallelled cunningness, or buried th body where no-one would be able to find it or identify it.
      The concept of “deterrence” is one of the weakest parts of current judicial theory.

  11. Do people not see the parallel between faith in God and faith in maple syrup?

    I don’t. For one thing, I have sufficient evidence that maple syrup exists!

  12. After the conviction, the father went on Facebook and posted a message. The CBC covered it below::

    David Stephan wrote a “dear jury” letter on his Facebook page Wednesday, one day after he and his wife were convicted of failing to provide the necessaries of life to their son, Ezekiel, who died of meningitis.

    “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,” Stephan wrote Wednesday.

    “The floodgates 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.

    “May heaven help us all!”

    Indeed! “Parenting as seen fit by the government” Hmmmm…. the government thinks you should not allow your child’s brain and spinal cord coverings to be destroyed by bacteria. BAD government! This guy is no martyr. I hope he gets the maximum sentence.

    1. I too read that article this morning. That guy is dangerously and willfully ignorant. He’s also probably trying to save his own skin by appealing to the court of public opinion. Your Honour, throw the book at them!

    2. I didn’t read this before posting my message about “deterrence” above. You support my point, in different terms. This person could not be deterred because he thought he was doing the right thing.
      Delusional. Unfortunately, being stupid has rarely been a crime – just getting caught.

    1. So, life imprisonment for the car driver who has a crash in which a child dies, without regard at all for the circumstances.
      There is a saying that the Law Lords – and Rumpole – trot out from time to time, that “hard cases make bad laws”.

  13. “… they prefer naturopathic remedies because of their family’s negative experiences with the medical system.”

    And I will lay 1000:1 odds that they will NOT count their child’s death as a negative experience with their idiot belief system.

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