Philadelphia police are investigating the sudden death of a 9-year-old boy whose family belongs to the Faith Tabernacle Congregation, a sect that believes in healing through prayer instead of medical care.
The boy, Benjamin Reinert, was found dead by his father Dec. 31 in the family's home in the city's Crescentville section. An initial autopsy failed to determine the cause of death, so the Medical Examiner's Office is performing more tests.
The boy's mother is deceased.
Just days before Benjamin died, city social workers visited the family in response to an anonymous phone call complaining that the boy was not receiving treatment for an ankle injured in a basketball game.
Reached by telephone at his home, Benjamin's father, Paul Reinert, said: "I'd rather not say anything."
Alba Martinez, commissioner of the Department of Human Services, said social workers visited the family twice at the end of December. They advised Reinert to seek medical care for his son's ankle, but did not remove the child from his home because it did not appear he had been abused and his injuries did not appear life-threatening, she said.
State law allows the agency to seek court intervention in cases where a family refuses to seek medical care only if it appears the child's long-term health is threatened.
"The family was cooperative," Martinez said. "They're very strong with their religious beliefs... . There were no outward indications of an injury. There was some pain in the ankle area, and it was our plan to closely monitor the situation."
In the past, members of Philadelphia's Faith Tabernacle Congregation have faced criminal charges when their children have died or become gravely ill because of a lack of medical treatment.
A Lawndale couple, Susan and Dean Heilman, were charged with manslaughter and were sentenced to 17 years' probation in the 1999 death of their 22-month-old son, a hemophiliac who bled to death after cutting himself on a piece of glass.
In 1998, Daniel and Anne Marie Foster, of the city's Tacony section, were charged with child endangerment and sentenced to 14 months' probation for failing to seek treatment for their 2-year-old son, who had cancer. The boy survived under court-ordered medical care.
In 1991, five children of Faith Tabernacle members died in a measles outbreak.
It is unclear what, if any, charges Benjamin's father could face if his death is determined to be from neglect.
Martinez said Reinert was being as helpful as possible to the agency.
"We're devastated," Martinez said. "We know the father is devastated."