Carl and Raylene Worthington had criminal felony charges brought against them for failing to care for their sick daughter. Raylene was acquitted, and Carl was found guilty of criminal mistreatment in the death of 15-month-old Ava. When I'd first heard of the case, I figured the parents were obviously bad parents and that there'd be no question as to guilt. But as I followed the case over the past few days, I realized (as with most things in life) that's it's just not that simple.
The questions involve faith, familial hierarchy, and parenting: three issues many adults struggle with all their lives.
"Leave it in God's hands." It's a message I've heard over and over in the Christian world. A friend of mine recently confided that she leaves her family issues in God's hands, and a pastor last Sunday encouraged his congregation to do the same with their troubles. My husband and I discussed this on the way home from church. I'm sorry, but I have a hard time giving up my parenting rights and responsibilities and giving it all over to God. Without even thinking of the Worthington case on Sunday, I commented that such behavior sounds like an easy cop out. Acutally, I think it reeks of neglect. I can pray, but I can't just give my kids' lives up to God and dust responsibility from my hands. Faith should be a strengthening element in one's life, not an excuse to give up. But when you hear that message about letting go and giving your problems up to the Lord often enough, as I suspect Raylene and Carl did, there are times you start to wonder.
And then there's the question of family hierarchy. One of the jurors reportedly said, after the trial, that most people are partners in a marriage. In an ideal world, that might be true. But I wonder how many Christian families she surveyed before making that statement. Members of the Worthington's church said that, in their faith, the husband is the leader. Sadly, that belief isn't unusual. In fact, this has been taught through the ages in many churches and many households, often attributing this "wisdom" to the apostle Paul. I have heard plenty of friends say that their husbands are the leaders of their homes, and I have often deferred to my husband over the years because this belief, whether traditional or religious, has been pounded into my head. It didn't always feel right, but it can be downright frightening to risk harmony and go head to head with your husband. One of my kids used to remind me that "Dad's not the boss of you." If only I'd listened to that youthful advice more often I might feel more at peace right now. Fortunately, one of the good things about growing older is having the strength (or stubbornness) to stand up for what you believe, even against the people upon whom you depend most. But Raylene is much younger than me, and I suspect she would have struggled immensely had she argued with Carl, shaking the security of her home. Does that make her decision to withhold treatment from Ava excusable? No, I don't think it does. But I do think I understand, a little, how family dynamics may have influenced her.
And finally there's the issue of good parenting. I don't condone what the Worthingtons did. Based on what I've read, I'm pretty sure I would have had my child at the doctor long before the symptoms became life threatening. But nobody can say for sure what decision he or she would have made because nobody wore the Worthington shoes. Thankfully most of us don't need to face a court of law with our parenting decisions, but we do have to face the informal jury of our peers every day. Ever watched a temper tantrum in a store and judged the mother's reaction? Ever heard of a dad losing his temper and shaking your head in disgust? I have felt cold eyes watch me throughout my parenting years, evaluating whether I made the right school choice for my kids, or whether I delivered the right consequences, or whether it was wise to let them take certain risks that some parents wouldn't have allowed. Wasn't rock climbing awfully dangerous? How could you let him jump off that waterfall? How could you let him drink so much soda? Watch that movie? Fly on a plane alone, or stay home alone, or spend time on the computer alone? Spend time with a girl alone? Every child is different, and every family is different, and every moment is different. Most parents make the best decision possible at any given time. We love our kids, and we want the best for them. But that sometimes involves making hard decisions that others won't agree with, and a parent needs to wear a full coat of armor as protection from a society that seems free, perhaps even invited, to pass judgment whenever it chooses.
I am sorry for Ava's short life, and I am sorry for the Worthington family's loss. But I am especially sorry that I passed judgment on their decision without having all the facts - which of course I'll never have, because I am not wearing their shoes, and never will.