A toddler got meningitis. His anti-vac parents gave him an herbal remedy. The toddler died. Now his parents are on trial.
David and Collet Stephan have a beautiful family. On that, at least, there is little debate. In the many photos they have posted online, the devout couple’s children are blond and brightly smiling and often dressed in matching outfits. Collet is pretty with a graceful posture and almond-shaped eyes. David is tall and handsome with a mane and a beard, like a classical painting of Jesus Christ.
The Canadian Rockies surrounding their home in rural Alberta complete the picturesque family portraits.
In the comments under their photos, however, there are hints that something is amiss.
“They are a poor excuse as parents.”
There may be little doubt about the Stephan family’s good looks, but there is a major debate over their beliefs.
On March 5, the Canadian government opened its trial against David and Collet. The charge: failing to provide their 19-month-old son, Ezekiel, the necessaries of life.
According to prosecutors, David and Collet stubbornly refused to take their sick son to see a doctor, instead giving him home remedies such as smoothies containing hot pepper, ginger root, horseradish, onion and apple cider vinegar. Even after warnings from a family friend who is a nurse, the anti-vaccine couple took him to a naturopath for echinacea — an herb believed to stimulate the immune system — instead of to a doctor for an exam.
It was only when Ezekiel began to have trouble breathing that they rushed him to a hospital, prosecutors said.
By then, it was too late.
Ezekiel died from bacterial meningitis and empyema, two conditions routinely cured with antibiotics, a medical examiner told the court last week, according to the Lethbridge Herald.
If convicted, the parents could spend up to five years in prison.
The case has stirred outrage across Canada and the United States. It comes at a time when belief in natural and homeopathic remedies is on the rise in North America. More controversially, anti-vaccine sentiment is also surging, leading to a resurgence of once vanquished diseases like measles and whooping cough.
The toddler’s tragic death raises questions of whether and when parents have a duty to take their children to the hospital, despite their personal or religious beliefs.
Ezekiel Stephan wasn’t old enough to speak for himself when he died. Nonetheless, he has become a lightning rod for a raging debate.
In his death, some see dangerous medical quackery. In his parents’ trial, however, others see a witch hunt.
“Children have a right to evidence-based medical care, not just prayer and useless folk remedies,” shot back a commenter.
That debate has dominated the lead up to and duration of the trial.
It wasn’t until a year after Ezekiel’s death that the Stephans were charged.
The couple was shocked.
“There’s nothing in the world that will bring him back,” David told the Calgary Herald. “What good could possibly come out of this?
“What could possibly be worse than the suffering we’ve endured for the past year?”
Several Stephan family members suggested the family was being singled out for its beliefs. David’s father, Anthony Stephan, founded a company called TrueHope that sells a natural supplement that claims to fight bipolar disorder.
“Anthony Stephan, a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Alberta, Canada, was away on business when his wife took her life by asphyxiation after affixing a hose to the exhaust pipe of the family minivan,” the Salt Lake City Weekly reported in 2013.” Stephan’s wife had been diagnosed with bipolar-affective disorder, the same ailment that had afflicted her father, who had also taken his life.”
When two of Anthony’s kids were also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he “felt that traditional medication didn’t save his wife and wouldn’t help his children,” according to the alt-weekly. He and a friend devised a nutritional supplement, TrueHope, that they tested out on the two kids. According to a promotional video, the kids felt an effect and were able to quit their medications.
In 2004, the Canadian government’s health department, called Health Canada, pressed charges against TrueHope, claiming the company did not have the scientific evidence to back its claims.
TrueHope won two years later, but the case left the Stephan family feeling persecuted.
“Whatever’s going on here stinks,” Brad Stephan told the Huffington Postshortly after the child neglect charges were filed against his brother and sister-in-law. “I don’t see anybody else getting charged for having meningitis.
“I almost have to wonder if we don’t have an officer somewhere or someone just acting overzealous … We just feel this is just really over the top and we’re not understanding why.”
Anthony Stephan insisted that the family is not anti-medicine, despite their criticism of pharmaceutical companies and vaccines.
“If there’s any insinuation that they were withholding care from the child, it’s absolutely wrong,” he said, saying medical records showed his family visited doctors.
“This is something that the family missed, no question,” he admitted, adding: “It wasn’t a question of avoidance at all.”
On Facebook, however, David Stephan has claimed that his family has been targeted by Big Pharma and others opposed to his beliefs.
“Since this court case has begun, there has been a great deal of opposition and outright malicious attacks from various organizations, some having pharmaceutical interests and others just having a very strong opposing agenda,” he wrote on March 8, three days into the trial.
He has said his son was on a TrueHope pill called EMPowerplus — “the most powerful daily supplement in the world” — at the time of Ezekiel’s death, but denied that it was intended as a treatment for his illness, which the family believed was a case of croup.
And he has bemoaned being “in the international spotlight” and criticized media for reporting that he and his wife gave the sick toddler “maple syrup.”
“Anyone in their right mind would see how ridiculous this is, and if it wasn’t such a serious matter, it would be laughable,” he wrote on Facebook. “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. As all of these items contain high amounts of simple sugars, I would suspect that they would serve to feed viruses and bacteria and actually do the opposite of boosting the immune system.”
David has dubbed the proceedings a “vaccine trial,” claiming the Crown represents the “vaccine agenda.” He says authorities are “looking to create the legal precedent through the court system 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.”
He also said his family’s fundraising websites had been taken down repeatedly and that they suffered online abuse.
Indeed, Facebook photos of his family have been slapped with incendiary labels. Someone tagged David as “Babykiller” and Collet as “Murderer.”
Even the kids, alive and dead, have been targeted.
Ezekiel has been tagged “I Was Murdered” while his siblings have been labeled “SaveMe.”
So far in court, prosecutors have tried to avoid this emotional minefield.
“We’re not saying the accused killed Ezekiel,” prosecutor Clayton Giles said near the beginning of the trial, according to the Lethbridge Herald. “They loved him.”
But, he added, the parents didn’t do enough to help their sick toddler and are responsible for his death.
“They did not take Ezekiel to a doctor when they should have.”
Over the past two weeks, the jury has heard at times excruciating details about Ezekiel’s demise.
Prosecutors claim the boy was sick for several weeks before being rushed to the hospital, where he was kept on life support for a week before passing away.
The defense insists Ezekiel had shown improvement after being given home remedies, and that it was only when he stopped breathing that he seemed dangerously sick.
On March 12, 2012, Collet called Terrie Meynders, a family friend and registered nurse who had been Collet’s birth attendant, to come look at the boy.
Meynders testified that Ezekiel was asleep when she arrived at the Stephans’ home. She listened to his breathing but couldn’t find anything wrong.
“It did not jump out at me that he was that seriously ill,” she told the court, according to the Lethbridge Herald.
She did suggest, however, that he could have viral meningitis, and told Collet to seek medical help.
“I think you should take him to see a doctor,” Meynders testified, according to CBC.
Shortly afterwards, Collet called a local naturopath and asked about treatments for viral meningitis.
“She needed something to build up her baby’s immune system,” Lexie Vataman, a naturopathic clinic employee, testified in court, according to the Lethbridge Herald. “She said, ‘My baby might have a form of meningitis and we think it might be viral and not bacterial.’ ”
(That hunch was mistaken, according to the medical examiner.)
“You need to tell the lady to take the child to emergency right away,” the naturopathic doctor, Tracey Tannis, told Vataman, according to her own testimony.
“I think you should see a medical doctor,” Vataman relayed to Collet.
Vataman did prescribe Ezekiel with an echinacea mixture, however.
Echinacea is an herb “used for colds, flu, and other infections, based on the idea that it might stimulate the immune system to more effectively fight infection,” according to the National Institutes of Health. “Study results are mixed” on its usefulness, the NIH says.
By the time the Stephans drove to the naturopath to pick up the tincture, however, Ezekiel’s body was so stiff from his illness that he couldn’t sit in his car seat, according to an interview — played in court — the couple gave to Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Instead, the couple put a mattress in the back of their vehicle to take him to the naturopath.
A few days later, on March 14, 2012, Ezekiel suddenly crashed.
“All of a sudden his breathing wasn’t normal,” Collet told RCMP.
They called 911 and performed CPR on the toddler as they drove to meet an ambulance, but the boy repeatedly stopped breathing.
“He was blue by the time we met up with the ambulance,” Collet said in the recorded interview.