The details of this case are murky, but the facts we know are these: Ezekiel showed signs of some kind of respiratory troubles on and off for about two weeks, which the family treated at home. He never saw a doctor. When the child stopped breathing at home, David and Colette called for an ambulance. The toddler was taken to a local hospital, then airlifted to a larger facility, where he eventually died.
The case gets complicated when you look at both sides of the story. The family claims that the child seemed to be recovering, that he didn’t show any serious symptoms that any parent would ever worry about, that they thought he simply had the flu, and that the moment they suspected something was seriously wrong, they sought medical attention.
But the prosecution is claiming that the family willingly overlooked serious symptoms and delayed medical treatment. They argue that his death was the direct result of neglect at the parents’ hands.
David and Colette, who work for the nutritional supplement company Truehope, a “not-for-profit company improving mental health through micro nutrition,” started by David’s father, began standing trial at the end of February for the charges against them. They pleaded not guilty to their official charges of failing “to provide the necessities of life for their toddler.”
When I spoke to David, he was on his way to court, but was more than willing to tell me the exact details of what happened to his son before he passed. According to David, there simply weren’t any pressing signs that Ezekiel was seriously ill. “There was nothing there to say that this child is very sick, no outward symptoms that were alarming, and as such, we treated it as if it was the flu because that’s what it appeared to be,” he explained.
The medical examiner just released the official findings of the autopsy, which revealed that Ezekiel died from a lung infection and bacterial meningitis, although David says that the autopsy report still “left a lot of questions,” which they hope to have answered later today. The inconclusiveness of some of the findings, David speculates, are because Ezekiel’s symptoms were not typical of a child with meningitis, which is specifically why the family did not seek medical attention earlier.
“Any parent who found themselves in the exact situation would have done the same thing,” David says. “There was nothing severe enough to be alarming.”
The timeline for Ezekiel’s illness and subsequent death, according to David, are as follows:
- Monday, Feb. 27: Ezekiel came down with what David called “croup,” but recovered from it by the end of the week.
- March 4 & 5: The family went to church and Ezekiel went to preschool on Monday.
- March 6: By Tuesday, David says, Ezekiel “got tired.”
- March 7-9: “We thought he had gotten sick on Thursday, maybe the flu, but he had no serious symptoms, only low-lying symptoms,” David explains. “We gave him different herbal remedies — olive leaf extract, garlic, that kind of stuff. We were treating it like a lot of parents would have. You try to treat it at home and then you take him to the doctor if it doesn’t work.”
David says that Ezekiel did seem to get better and that from start to finish, he was sick for about one week, declined and got better, then another week passed before he got very ill. He claims that even on the day he passed, Ezekiel displayed “no symptoms” for the better half of the day.
“His symptoms were going away,” David maintains. “We considered them to be viral meningitis or the flu, we weren’t convinced one way or the other [because] he had low-level symptoms of the flu, nothing of which were concerning.”
When Ezekiel finally did display serious symptoms and stopped breathing at home, David says that they were about 30 minutes away from the hospital, so they called emergency services and actually met the ambulance on the highway.
And a crucial element to Ezekiel’s passing, David alleges, is that the ambulance did not have the proper equipment to initiate an airway for the child. “For the entire period of time he was in the ambulance he had no oxygen, so by the time he got to the hospital he was brain-dead,” David told me. Ezekiel was taken off of life support five days later.
The family has been faced with a large outpouring of anger and hostility on social media, especially after they asked for donations to fund their court case. Their official Facebook page has even been hacked, with someone tagging all of the family’s pictures as “Child Murderer” on David’s face.
Unsurprisingly, the family’s case has been turned into a debate on vaccines, with the family insisting they are being punished for not vaccinating their son in the first place. The actual charges, however, are not directly related to the family’s decision not to vaccinate their son, but are solely focused on the parents’ delay in seeking medical attention for their son. “There can be no mention of vaccine in the trial. The charges are as stands failure to get medical treatment,” a family friend, who wished to remain anonymous, told me.
Whichever way you look at this case, the facts are that a family has lost their son, and that is a tragedy. Hopefully the Stephans can find healing and we can all learn to be aware of the signs and symptoms of serious illnesses in children that warrant immediate medical attention.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” David told me. “Looking back at it, would we have done anything different? If we had known, the outcome, absolutely, of course. It’s the question we will always be left with the rest of our lives.”More On