Father gets jail time, mom gets house arrest in Alberta toddler’s meningitis death
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated Collet Stephan had been sentenced to three months in jail. In fact, she was sentenced to house arrest while her husband, David, was sentenced to four months in jail.
A father has been sentenced to four months in jail and his wife to three months of house arrest after being found guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life for their 19-month-old son, who died from bacterial meningitis.
David Stephan, 33, and his wife Collet, 36, were convicted by a Lethbridge jury in April after their trial was told they used naturopathic remedies rather than seeking medical treatment for the boy, Ezekiel.
Justice Rodney Jerke said the Stephans were caring parents and neither intended to put the boy’s life at risk.
But at the same time the judge noted the Stephans made a conscious decision not to see a doctor for well over a day before he was rushed to hospital.
“Any reasonable and prudent person would have taken action,” he said, as Collet sobbed quietly.
The prosecution had asked for a sentence in the range of three to 4½ years in prison, while the defence had argued for a suspended or conditional sentence with no time behind bars.
Jerke said the Crown’s request was “far too harsh.”
However, he said Collet was “wilfully blind” to the fact her conduct would put Ezekiel’s life at risk of death.
Before handing down the differing sentences for the couple, the judge pointed out that Collet did research and called a nurse about her son’s illness.
By contrast, he said, David simply got more nutritional supplements and, instead of calling of 911, called his father.
The judge said David has 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.
“[David] loved his son, but to this day refuses to accept his actions played any role in Ezekiel’s death,” he said.
“David’s moral culpability is greater than Collet’s.”
Conditions include community service
As part of the sentencing — which took about 90 minutes — the judge ordered the Stephans’ three other children to see a medical doctor at least once a year and a public health nurse every three months.
Both parents will have to complete 240 hours of community service.
There are exceptions to Collet’s house arrest to allow for church and medical appointments.
She was also ordered to post an unedited copy of the sentencing decision to websites and social media accounts she is personally affiliated with.
Outside court after the sentencing, the Crown said it was clear the judge considered submissions carefully.
Prosecutor Lisa Weich said the case was, in part, about providing a voice for Ezekiel.
“Nobody could speak for him. He couldn’t even speak for himself,” Weich said.
“He will not be able to experience any of the highs and lows that people encounter as they grow into adults.”
David Stephan’s brother-in-law Eric Sveinson said he’s thankful the sentences weren’t longer.
“He could have been a lot more harsh, and I am so grateful,” Sveinson said.
“I think he was lenient in that regard.”
Sveinson said he hopes the family can get past the trauma and move forward.
Couple’s supporters filled courtroom
Stephans’ supporters packed the courtroom for the sentencing, many wearing white in solidarity and some sobbing.
A protester stormed into the courtroom during the sentencing and yelled, “The stewardship of children is the parents’ responsibility,” but three guards grabbed him and escorted him out.
David addressed the family’s supporters before entering.
“Reach into your heart, think deeper about it. Don’t accept at face value people that speak words that want you to be hateful to others. I love you for the people that you are,” David said.
“I even love those who have hated us.”
David Stephan’s family helped start a nutritional supplements company.
Court heard the couple thought the boy had croup or flu, so they treated him with hot peppers, garlic, onions and horseradish — even though a family friend who was a nurse told them she thought Ezekiel had meningitis.
The trial also heard the little boy was too stiff to sit in his car seat and had to lie on a mattress when Collet Stephan drove him from their rural home to a naturopathic clinic in Lethbridge to pick up an echinacea mixture.
The Stephans never called for medical assistance until Ezekiel stopped breathing. He was rushed to a local hospital but died after being transported to a Calgary hospital.
Small group of protesters
Before court on Friday, a smaller group demonstrated in support of science and mainstream medicine. One man held a sign saying, “Science not Fear, Love not Negligence.”
The judge received tearful pleas from both of the Stephans when he asked them if they had anything they would like to say to the court as the sentencing hearing concluded Thursday evening.
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David Stephan said it is important for his other children to have a father “who’ll help raise them up.”
“Looking back at it, had I known that it could possibly end up in this situation I would not have put my child at risk,” he told court Thursday in the pre-sentence statements.
“There is nothing I wouldn’t give up to bring him back.”
Collet Stephan said her only purpose in life is to be a mother.
“My children are everything to me and I’m everything to my children,” she said, sobbing. “I am incredibly sorry I did not take him to the hospital. I just loved him so much.”