Was the death of a Tulare girl -- whose parents, for religious reasons, opted not to seek medical care -- the will of God or the result of child abuse?
The question may seem eerily familiar after the Tulare County District Attorney's Office filed charges of involuntary manslaughter and child abuse last week against Wesley and LaRonda Hamm.
The Hamms are members of the General Assembly and Church of the First Born, a small congregation that gathers every Sunday morning in a modest building on West Gail Avenue. In March, the Hamms' 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, died in the family's home on Cochran Avenue, surrounded by family and church members.
Ten years ago, in August 1993, the death of another young member of the same church led to felony child-abuse charges against her parents and focused scrutiny on the congregation and its controversial stance on modern medicine.
On March 13, Jessica Hamm died after several days of what her parents described as flulike symptoms.
An autopsy by the Tulare County Coroner's Office reported the causes of death as cardiorespiratory failure, due to inflammation of her lungs and trachea, and sepsis, a bacterial infection.
Assistant District Attorney Carol Turner said doctors could have saved the child: "We would not have filed if there were no evidence that, but for seeking medical care, the child would have lived."
Adding to the concerns surrounding the case is information in court records that Jessica was the third of the Hamms' six children to die of illnesses at a young age.
In January 1995, Tyler Blake Hamm, 11, died in Springdale, Ark., where the family lived at the time. A coroner's report in the case, included in court documents, indicated that the boy had been sick for about two weeks and probably died from chronic diabetes complicated by flu and dehydration.
In January 1999, another son, 12-year-old Bradley Hamm, died after being ill for two weeks with fever and pneumonia at the family's home in Indiana. Published reports indicated that Bradley's death was investigated, but that prosecutors opted not to file criminal charges.
The Hamms have three other children, all daughters, ages 13, 6 and 3.
The Church of the First Born is one of several Christian fundamentalist sects that reject modern medicine.
"If they take their children to doctors, they believe they are putting their faith in man instead of in God," said Bob Bartlett, a Visalia attorney representing the Hamms in a civil case against the county's Child Welfare Services.
Bartlett said the county is trying to decide whether the couple's three remaining children should be removed from the home for their own safety.
"The crux of the [county's] case is that the Hamms have a belief system that rules out taking their children to medical providers ... and that that belief system puts the children at risk of harm," Bartlett said.
"But there are 60 families in Tulare County that belong to this church and believe this way ... and about 10,000 families nationwide," Bartlett said. "But Child Welfare Services isn't detaining any other children in that church ... except the Hamms."
So far, Bartlett said, the three daughters are still with their parents. All are in good health and, he said, a county nurse checks on them each week.
"Everyone is trying to do the right thing," he said.
According to court documents, Vernal Dukes, a member of the Tulare church's group of elders, explained to Tulare police investigators that church members "practice the teachings of the Bible" and that "they do not believe in using doctors or hospitals."
Instead, "faith healing" is used, with church elders praying over sick church members. Dukes told investigators "there are no situations where they would contact a doctor for medical treatment," and that whether the person recovers is "God's will."
The law varies from state to state over whether religious beliefs are a defense against criminal charges of child neglect for not seeking medical care for a child.
Religious beliefs are not a defense in California, Turner said.
"It's an argument, but it's not a defense," she said. "In California, parents have an obligation to provide for their children the basics of living -- food, shelter and care, including medical care."
Dukes said this week that the elders decided that they would not comment to reporters about the Hamm case.
Turner was the prosecutor in 1995, when Church of the First Born members Carol and Harold Stevens were indicted by a Tulare County grand jury on a charge of felony child abuse after their daughter Carrie, 16, died of diabetes in August 1993. Carrie decided to stop taking insulin shots because of her religion after she was baptized in the church.
Prosecutors alleged that because Carrie was younger than 18, the couple was legally responsible for Carrie's medical needs.
After a trial, a jury was deadlocked and a mistrial declared. Before a retrial could be scheduled, a plea agreement was reached in which the Stevenses pleaded no contest to misdemeanor child abuse and served three years on probation.
The felony charges could land the Hamms in prison if they are convicted. Turner said the child-abuse charge carries a penalty of up to six years in prison, while the sentence for involuntary manslaughter can be two, three or four years.