LETHBRIDGE – An Alberta couple charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life to their 18-month-old son was found guilty on Tuesday.
Ezekiel Stephan died of meningitis in March 2012 at the Children’s Hospital in Calgary; his parents David Stephan, 32, and Collet Stephan, 35, were charged 11 months later.
David and Collet testified they believed Ezekiel was suffering from croup or the flu, so they treated him with remedies that included hot peppers, garlic, onions and horseradish.
After the verdict was delivered, the Crown asked for the Stephans to be made to hand over their passports but the judge denied the request and set a sentencing date for June 13, for which the couple must appear in person.
Collet Stephan broke out in tears and could be seen shaking after hearing the verdict while her husband David, rubbed her back. Several jurors also began to cry.
“This charge, failing to provide the necessaries of life, ensures that people who cannot care for themselves, receive the minimal standard of care expected by society,” Crown prosecutor Lisa Weich said to reporters after court was adjourned. “Unfortunately, nobody can speak for Ezekiel. He wasn’t old enough to speak for himself. What we are required to do is make sure that the public at large, and accused people in general, are held to the criminal standard. And in this case, it was holding the parents to the criminal standard of care for their child.”
“They definitely, definitely loved their son, but as stated in our closing arguments and even in our opening arguments, unfortunately, love just sometimes isn’t enough. Parents still have to follow the standard of care that is set by the criminal law,” Weich added.
Relatives of the Stephans’ spoke to reporters after the verdict was handed down to express their support for the parents and their disappointment at the outcome of the trial.
“The four years have been tragic to watch those kids suffer. Never once have they ever been allowed to remove themselves and heal and to have to sit and listen… I mean how many times do you have to hear a 911 call without it becoming that daunting nightmare day in, day in, day in, day in,” Noelle Jellison, David Stephan’s aunt, said. “My heart goes out to them. They’re broken, they’re torn, their hearts are broken, they’ve never had the ability to grieve at all because they did what they thought was the best possible decision.”
Jellison added that the verdict “that doesn’t make them bad people” and that they do not deserve death threats she alleges they’ve received.
“They’re very disappointed,” Eric Sveinson, David Stephan’s brother-in-law, said. “I don’t think the world is going to see a better family than David and Collet Stephan were. I’ve interacted with them and their children many times and I don’t know any other people that treat their kids better.”
Jellison also said she wonders what the implications of the guilty verdicts will be.
“This is pretty much a travesty to the Alberta health care system,” she said. “Because of this ruling, every child with a sniffle, a headache and a sore throat is going to end up in emergency wards and a doctor’s office because from this point on, if you dare make the wrong decision, you’ll be held accountable. If you’re not held accountable, then we all know that there was a reason for this case and I don’t have to go there because you already know.”
Weich also pointed out that the charges, failing to provide the necessaries of life, weren’t laid simply because the boy died.
“While this particular case, with this particular victim – an 18-month-old child – is incredibly sad, the unfortunate death that resulted has nothing to do with this charge.”
READ MORE: Parents of Alberta boy who died from meningitis thought he had cold or flu: defence
Court heard how the boy swung between illness and recovery for days in March 2012 before a family friend and nurse suggested the child could be suffering from meningitis and should see a doctor.
The mother opted to visit a naturopath instead. By that time, the toddler was so stiff he couldn’t sit in his car seat. Later that day, Ezekiel stopped breathing and was rushed to a nearby hospital.
READ MORE: ‘By far our sickest patient’: doctor testifies in case of Alberta boy’s meningitis death
The boy was then taken to the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary where doctors detected little brain activity.
Ezekiel was taken off life support on March 18, 2012. The medical examiner ruled he died of bacterial meningitis, empyema and a lung infection.
The case has drawn international attention, due in part because of the debate over the natural medicine movement.
READ MORE: Alberta meningitis death trial shines light on natural medicine
The maximum penalty for failing to provide the necessaries of life is five years in prison.
– With files from Quinn Campbell, Melissa Ramsay and The Canadian Press