How Could Parents Let a Child Die? Tv's Promised a Miracle Explores a Tragic Case of Misguided Faith

updated 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Of all the things that can be said about Wesley Parker's death at age 11, the saddest is this: His parents let it happen. Burning with religious fervor, Larry and Lucky Parker watched the eldest of their four children succumb to diabetic shock while they clutched Bibles and withheld insulin. That 1973 tragedy is the subject of Promised a Miracle, a CBS TV movie airing May 19, starring Rosanna Arquette and Judge Reinhold as the Parkers.

The production has focused new attention on an old conflict between religious belief and the state's duty to protect the helpless. In the past 15 years at least 126 children in the U.S. have died because their parents, Christian Scientists or members of fundamentalist sects, withheld medical treatment out of doctrinal conviction that prayer is the only allowable treatment for illness. "The pressures that motivate these parents are more complex than most people know," says Rita Swan, 44, who now publishes CHILD (Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty), a quarterly newsletter tracking the phenomenon known as "faith deaths." Swan speaks from experience. She and her husband, Doug, 48, chairman of the math department at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, lost their 16-month-old son to meningitis in 1977 when their reliance on Christian Science delayed their taking him to a hospital.

Unlike the Swans and the Parkers, who have renounced their mistakes, few faith-death parents publicly admit to error, even when convicted of child abuse and manslaughter. Four faith-death families—three in California and one in Florida—are currently defending themselves against state prosecution. A fifth and sixth couple, in Massachusetts and Oklahoma, have been charged with manslaughter. A seventh, in Washington State, has been charged with homicide. An eighth, in Pennsylvania, is preparing to appeal a conviction of involuntary manslaughter in the U.S. Supreme Court. Win or lose in court, says Swan, all will pay a penalty. "It will rip them apart till the end of time."

They say time heals all wounds," says Larry Parker, "but it's never the same." Parker, 49, comes by his wisdom painfully. Fifteen years after the events depicted in Promised a Miracle, his family is still feeling the aftershocks. An operations engineer at the Goldstone satellite tracking station, 48 miles from the Parker home in Barstow, Calif., Larry can at least talk about his son's death. His wife, Lucky, 43, can't even let herself be interviewed about the loss. "Guilt, sorrow and regret are all there," says Larry. "Most of the time it's buried, but there are times when it unexpectedly comes out strong."

The Parkers' odyssey into what they now see as delusion began Aug. 19, 1973, the Sunday when evangelist Daniel Padilla came to services at the First Assembly of God Church in Barstow. The church's pastor, the Rev. Gary Nash, told his congregation that Padilla had been hospitalized with "a painful spine condition," but, thanks to the power of prayer, had been healed by God. Padilla then took up the theme, inviting "anyone who needs a miracle in their life, especially healing of the body" to step forward and receive his prayers. The Parkers briefly debated whether to let their severely diabetic son step forward. After all, Wesley had been prayed for so often, to no avail, that his hopes were waning. Still, the boy was willing to try once more.

"Do you understand what we are going to pray for now?" Padilla asked as the Parkers knelt before him.

"Yes," said Wesley, "I want to be healed of diabetes."

"I believe God is going to heal you, Wesley. Do you believe it?"

"Uh-huh," said Wesley. He believed.

His parents had reservations, but by then they were in the market for a miracle. A Washington, D.C., native, Larry had come from a broken home, finding solace in the Assemblies of God Church at age 6. Lucky (who hasn't been called by her real name, Alice, since she was a baby) was raised in Washington, D.C., by an aunt and uncle after her mother suffered a nervous breakdown. Lucky joined the church three years after her 1961 marriage to Larry. Things had gone well for the couple until 6-year-old Wesley was diagnosed as a diabetic. In 1972 he had had to be hospitalized after a low blood-sugar reaction. The following spring Larry was laid off from his job at Goldstone, where he'd worked since 1963. Psychologically bruised by the lost income and their son's failing health, the Parkers felt a strong need for divine intervention.

"We wanted to believe," says Larry. Then that Sunday, when Wesley himself started telling his friends he'd been healed, "we began telling ourselves, 'Okay, we're going to believe it, and that will make it true.' All my life I'd been taught that if you could get enough faith to ignore external circumstances, your faith would be complete."

The next morning, the Parkers took Wesley's insulin away, even though the boy's urine test indicated a need for the medication. "You are healed," Larry told his son, squirting the insulin into the trash and breaking the syringe.

Wesley asked if he could have sugar on his cereal. "Sure, honey," replied his mother.

Larry was telling himself that the urine test was just "a lie from Satan," a way of testing the family's faith. "We had been teaching that God heals and that when you pray, He answers your prayers," says Larry. "And when your child confesses that he's healed, it's difficult to say, 'Well, you're really not.' "

Over the next two days, Wesley showed all the signs of rising blood sugar and diabetic decline: vomiting, headaches, excessive urination and stomach pain. The Parkers responded with fervent prayer, trying to persuade themselves that doubt was the real danger. "It was horrible," says Larry. "We were fighting ourselves. Because of our love for our son, we wanted to give him insulin. But we were fighting that, thinking our faith demanded we not do it."

On Tuesday, Wesley's discomfort grew so acute that Larry almost caved in and bought insulin; he was dissuaded by three members of Lucky's prayer group. By early Wednesday morning the child's breathing was labored and ragged. God, the Parkers reasoned, is really taking us to the edge. And when Reverend Nash kneeled at Wesley's bedside and his rasping eased, the Parkers believed with renewed fervor that prayers were the true prescription. At that point even Nash was having serious doubts. Later that morning, he returned to the Parkers' home and urged them to take Wesley to a doctor. But the parents had convinced themselves heart and soul that giving up now would be akin to rejecting God.

Early that afternoon the 11-year-old lapsed into a coma. A few hours later, his parents and friends still praying at his bedside, Wesley Parker suffered a final diabetic convulsion and died.

Larry's face still twists in grief when he remembers what happened next. "My reaction was, 'Nothing to get excited about. He's going to rise from the dead.' " The following Sunday the Parkers conducted a "resurrection service" at the funeral home. When his own prayers failed, Larry invited the children present—his own as well as others'—to ring the coffin and chant, "Rise, Wesley," over and over. "I was searching to see what was the right thing to do," says Larry. "I didn't want to overlook doing something that would have resulted in his resurrection. Had I been thinking rationally, I never.... I look back and sometimes think, 'I must have been crazy.' I don't understand. But you can't undo things you've done. Even if you know better, it's too late."

On Monday, Wesley was buried in Mountain View Cemetery; his parents refused to attend the burial. Two days later, on Aug. 29, Larry and Lucky were arrested on charges of involuntary manslaughter and child abuse and spent six days in jail. Convicted on both counts, the Parkers were given five years' probation. Four years later, on the basis of their exemplary post-trial conduct and their acknowledgment that Wesley died needlessly, the conviction was overturned, and probation was terminated.

Since then, Larry's expiation has included co-authoring a 1980 book, We Let Our Son Die, and selling the rights to the producers of the TV movie. The money the Parkers made has been donated to a missionary support group and to diabetes research. "We're not doing this for our benefit," says Larry. "The sole motivation is to stop other people from making the same mistake."

While Promised a Miracle, as producer Roni Weisberg says, "treats the Parkers as victims, not villains," Larry and Lucky are braced for the inevitable backlash. Their house was pelted with eggs after their arrest. They were called "child killers" by their jailers and "murderers" by a neighborhood boy. This time around they expect wider opprobrium. "We're very nervous and a little frightened about this coming out again because it's a bad thing we did," says Larry. "Many times we've prayed, 'Lord, why couldn't we have learned another way that this kind of faith is wrong, that it's not really faith at all, but presumption?' We want whatever lessons there are to be shared with as many people as possible."

Today the Parkers visit Wesley's grave from time to time and place red roses from their front yard in the steel vase near the headstone. After a rift of several years, they've returned to the First Assembly of God Church, where Larry sings in the choir. Their other children, Pam, 25, Tricia, 23, and Jay, 16, have finally adjusted to the tragedy. "We're a united family," says Larry. And the Parkers believe their lost son has forgiven them.

Several years ago Lucky dreamed that a powerful earthquake had shaken their house. In the dream she rushed into Jay's room to comfort him, but found Wesley there, smiling at her. "Lucky knew there was no need to ask Wesley's forgiveness," says Larry. "He understood. He's with the Lord now, and one day we will be reunited with him."

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