Naturopathy is a form of alternative medicine that push overconsumption of vitamins and minerals, herbalism woo, as well as other types of quackery such as homeopathy and acupuncture. In addition, they are decidedly anti-medicine because they generally oppose vaccines and pharmaceuticals.
It often rests on vitalism, which is the debunked notion that the core feature of life is a mysterious life energy, rather than physical, chemical and biological processes. It also has a near fetishistic obsession with everything “from nature” or “natural”, despite the fact that nature can produce and has produced substances that are incredibly dangerous for humans.
In an investigation of naturopathy and other alternative treatments carried out by the Australian government only a single unpublished systematic review was found, and so they concluded “overall quality of evidence was rated as very low”. In their evaluation, they highlighted risk of bias, low precision, and publication bias.
Who are David And Collet Stephan?
David and Collet Stephan are a married couple living in Alberta, Canada. They are also devoted proponents and practitioners of naturopathy and David was at the very least an employee at the controversial alternative medicine company called Truehope that has been discussed several times before on this website.
In early 2012, their son Ezekiel, a 19-month-old toddler, developed meningitis. It is not clear that this case of meningitis was caused by a vaccine-preventable disease, but it is a possibility, and the family opposed vaccines.
How did their actions lead to the death of their son Ezekiel?
Meningitis is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. How did Ezekiel’s parents handle it? Did they call an ambulance? Visit an emergency room? No, far from it. They tried to “boost the immune system” of the child with alleged “natural remedies” such as maple syrup, berry juice, apple cider vinegar, garlic and other food items. They also tried the nutritional supplement Empowerplus from the Truehope company discussed above. Most reasonable people understand that these “treatments” do not work, or at the very least has never been shown to work in large-scale scientific studies.
Ezekiel was sick for almost two weeks. It starting with a fever that the parents attributed to teething, but he soon developed labored and wheezy breathing. It was now that the Stephans started with their herbal “treatments” and put in a humidifier. The toddler mostly stopped eating and drinking, so they have to give him fluids through eye drops. His symptoms likely worsened, but the parents belief in the efficacy of their treatments led them to believe that the boy was improving. He then became increasingly lethargic and unresponsive as well as showing some neurological symptoms. A few days later, the parents noticed increased stiffness that eventually became so severe that his back was arched when laying down.
The Stephans called over a family friend who was a nurse who said that it could be meningitis. Collet looked it up on the Internet and found out about the clinical signs of meningitis developed by Kernig and Brudzinski. She tried those tests on Ezekiel and they were positive. At this point, if not much earlier, a reasonable person unburdened by naturopathic quackery, would call an ambulance. Did the parents do this? Nope. Instead, they started giving their son olive leaf extract, garlic and DMSO2 as well as various other supplements. Again, the placebo effect took hold of the parents and they believed he was again improving. Instead of calling an ambulance, they called their naturopath who recommended yet more quackery that they went and picked up the day after. Due to the severs back stiffness, Ezekiel had to lay down in the car because he could not sit up.
In the late evening of March 13, everything started going downhill. Collet retells that Ezekiel had “abnormal breathing where he seemed to be gasping and struggling” and that he even stopped breathing for small periods of time. Surely, even the dumbest parents would have called the national emergency number at this point. Did the Stephans do this? Yes, fortunately they did. However, they decided against waiting for an ambulance and drove him to the hospital themselves. The child stopped breathing in the car and despite resuscitation efforts by Collet, did not start again. They called for an ambulance to meet them at the car. Despite 10 minutes of CPR, Ezekiel had turned blue by the time the ambulance arrived.
The ambulance got the toddler to the hospital, intubated him and injected him with epinephrine and atropine and after about half an hour, they got basic circulation back. They moved the boy with a helicopter to a pediatric intensive care unit in Calgary, where he underwent a CT scan and other tests. However, in the morning of March 15 2012, the doctors told the parents that he met the criteria for brain death.
Had they taken their child to a hospital when he started getting sick, he would likely have survived. They doctors suspected bacterial meningitis, so it might have been of a form that could have been prevented with a vaccine. The physician’s report said that Ezekiel had never been to a hospital.
How were they prosecuted?
The trial began in March 7 2016, almost four years after the death of Ezekiel. They were charged with “failure to provide the necessities of life”. How did the parents plead? Were they heartbroken over their failure to call an ambulance right away? Over how their quackery had indirectly killed their son? No, they pleaded not guilty. However, in an interview with a social worker, the parents said that they would take their other children to a hospital if they got sick.
How did they try to defend their failure to provide necessities of life?
Perhaps the emotional trauma is so severe that the cognitive dissonance forces them to continue to hold fast to their irrational beliefs in the allegedly curative powers of naturopathy. A particularly telling quote from the father makes this abundantly clear:
The father told Bulford he believed taking Ezekiel to a physician sooner would not have helped.
“She found out Monday afternoon that it was meningitis, not a whole lot they can do for that until they can discover what [type] it is, and to discover what it is, they have to do a spinal tap,” he said.
“I don’t think anyone would have caught that unless he was under 24-hour supervision of a doctor.”
No one would have caught meningitis unless the child was under a 24-hour medical supervision? Doctors cannot do anything unless they know what type of meningitis? This is dangerous misinformation. Of course you can diagnose meningitis without constant medical supervision. Of course doctors can start treatment on meningitis without knowing the type. Indeed, this was what the doctors ended up doing, but it was unfortunately too late. Against all evidence, David certainly did not believe that they were negligent:
Ezekiel’s father told the officer he and his wife felt certain their actions up to that night had been prudent.
“If this comes into question of whether this is a case of negligence or not, of course I would say no, I would say it’s completely the opposite. We’ve gone above and beyond where he has received exceptional care,” he said.
Their child died on bacterial meningitis after they refused to call for an ambulance for at least two weeks…and he believes that they have “gone above and beyond where he has received exceptional care”. His pseudoscientific delusions were incredibly firm.
CBC News Calgary has made several court-related recordings available to the public on their website. This includes what Collet did when she first discovered that her child worsened, Collet about visiting a naturopath, David on naturopathic treatments, Collet’s description of the medical emergency as well as David’s first and second 911 call.
What was the result of the trial?
Both of them got convicted for failing to provide the necessities of life. The maximum sentence is 5 years in prison. After the conviction David Stephans decided to post a harsh and conspiratorial message on Facebook to the jury.
David starts by declaring his undying love for the jury, then claim that they were deceived by the prosecution. Ironically, he claims that there is now a “dangerous precedent” set in Canada. In reality, a precedent that punishes parents who rely on quackery and indirectly kill their own children by failing to provide the necessities of life is a good precedent. The fact that David does not seem to understand this is telling, especially since this is after the conviction. He goes on to promote the conspiracy theory that the “flood gates are now open” and that the government can now convict people if they disagree with the government on parenting. This is not at all the case, since this case was specifically about failing to provide the bare necessities of life. It is not about parenting as such. Instead of taking responsibility, David blames it all on an ill-equipped ambulance. What David fails to recognize is that if he and Collet just had taken their sick son to the hospital 2 weeks earlier, this would never have happened.
What punishment did they get and why did it differ between parents?
Instead, David Stephan got 4 month in prison and Collet got 3 months in house arrest. Both parents got 240 hours of community service and 2 years probation afterwards. The remaining children has to visit a real doctor once a year and a nurse four times a year. Collect is also forced to post the sentence to all of her social media accounts. According to unverified figures from David, they spent over 300k USD on various legal fees.
The full decision by the judge can be found here. At the time of this writing, Collet has not posted it on their social media accounts.
So why did the two parents get difference sentences? Are they not equally guilty? The judge said that Collet did research meningitis on the Internet and called a nurse, whereas David just bought more pseudoscientific supplements and “deflected responsibility and demonstrated a complete lack of remorse for his actions, focusing more on how the situation affected him as opposed to his son”, that “but to this day refuses to accept his actions played any role in Ezekiel’s death” and that “David’s moral culpability is greater than Collet’s”.
They have no plans on appealing due to the high costs involved, so the conviction and verdict will likely stand. Many scientific skeptics wanted harsher punishment, but a conviction and jail time is better than what the defense wanted. The key is getting people convicted, because this sends a clear message: don’t indirectly kill your kids with quackery. It is absurd that we need such a message, but better that we send out such a message than do nothing.
David Stephan shows no remorse for indirectly killing his son with quackery
As the judge pointed out, David showed no remorse whatsoever for indirectly killing his son by quackery and ignorance. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the status update that David posted after the sentence was delivered that read (in part):
This is not the message you post when you have been convicted for failing to provide the necessities of life that led to the death of your own beloved son. This is not the message you post when you preferred quackery over real medicine. This is not the message you post when you trusted a naturopath over calling a real medical doctor. This is the message you post when you have no remorse. When you have no insight or understanding of what you just did.
How Canada is fighting back against quackery that harms and kills children
After the sentencing, three interesting developments have occurred.
The first is that the naturopath, Tracey Tannis, who was consulted by the Stephans and testified in their favor of the defendants is now under investigation:
The College of Naturopathic Doctors of Alberta is investigating one of its members in relation to the death of 19-month-old Ezekiel Stephan from bacterial meningitis. […] A letter to the CNDA, signed by 43 physicians and surgeons, raised a number of concerns with the conduct of Tracey Tannis, a naturopath consulted by the Stephans and who testified at their trial.
Now, can we expect a collection of naturopaths are going to objectively investigate another naturopath? In Canada, naturopathy is a regulated profession, but they are regulated by their own. On the other hand, they claim to go by the same standards as real doctors. So perhaps it is too soon to be hopeful that this naturopath will be sanctioned. But it is a start.
The second is that the people behind the anti-vaccine conspiracy movie “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” have sided with the convicted parents:
“We’re in a bit of a predicament here but this isn’t just our battle; this is everyone’s battle,” David told Del Bigtree and Polly Tommey, who were in Calgary to promote their movie Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe.
In a video interview that was livestreamed on Facebook, David asks viewers to show up at the Lethbridge court on Friday wearing blue jeans and white shirts as a show of support for him and his wife.
“We need to get people out to the courthouse to take a stand for this,” he said.
“Ultimately it comes down to whether we have the right to vaccinate or not vaccinate without being held criminally liable, or whether or not we have to rush our children to the doctor every time they get even just the sniffles, in fear that something may just randomly happen and then we’re held criminally liable.”
If there was any doubt that the Vaxxed movie was a piece of pseudoscientific nonsense, it has been made abundantly clear now that they support parents who have been convicted of failing to provide
The third development is that there are three more cases of failing to provide the necessities of life ongoing in Alberta. This involves two children and one adult with disabilities. Ryan Alexander Lovett died after ten days of an untreated strep infection because his mother chose alternative medicine over real medical care. John Clark died of a staph infection made more severe from malnutrition and their parents chose fundamentalist religion over science and medicine. Melissa Couture was a disabled adult who was found dead in her and her mother’s home, but details are lacking in this case. Perhaps David Stephan is right that the flood gates have been opened. But he is dead wrong about the consequences. What will happen is, hopefully, that people who fail to provide the necessities of life will be found and punished.
References and further reading
There are many articles about this case and its consequences on the CBC News Calgary website.
Adach, K. (2016). Alberta parents whose toddler died of meningitis were told to visit doctor, trial hears. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
Bell, D. (2016). David Stephan gets jail time, Collet Stephan gets house arrest in son’s meningitis death. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
CDC News Calgary. (2016). Naturopath in toddler’s meningitis death trial to be investigated by industry body. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
CBC News Calgary. (2016). Failing to provide the necessaries of life: Three more Alberta cases underway. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
CBC News Calgary. (2016). Toddler’s meningitis death trial decision in hands of jury. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
CBC News Calgary. (2016). Alberta parents convicted in toddler’s meningitis death. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
CBC News Calgary. (2016). Alberta toddler’s final days before meningitis death detailed in physician’s report at parents’ trial. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
CBC News Calgary. (2016). Crown seeks up to 4½ years prison time for parents of toddler in meningitis death. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
Dormer, D. (2016). Alberta dad confused by guilty verdict in son’s meningitis death, but has no plans to appeal. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
Fletcher, R. (2016a). Alberta parents convicted in son’s meningitis death call for courthouse rally in anti-vax interview. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
Fletcher, R. (2016b). David Stephan’s ‘Dear Jury’ letter could haunt him at sentencing, law experts say. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
Gibson, J. (2016a). Parents of toddler who died of meningitis used home remedies rather than consult doctor, court hears. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
Gibson, J. (2016b). Parents on trial in meningitis death of toddler defended use of natural remedies in police interview. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
Graveland, B. (2016). Parent of toddler who died of meningitis asked Alberta naturopath for immune system boost. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
Purdy, C. (2016). David Stephan warns conviction in son’s meningitis death sets ‘dangerous precedent’ in letter to jury. Accessed: 2016-07-05.
R v Stephan, 2016 ABQB 353 (CanLII). Accessed: 2016-07-06