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Amish baby forced to have open-heart surgery over parents objections

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CANTON — An Amish couple is waiting to find out if child neglect charges against them will be dropped following a closed-door conference Thursday in Family Court.

The couple, Annie L. and Levi M. Shetler, were charged last year after they refused open-heart surgery for their newborn daughter, Sarah, because they said the operation goes against the tenets of their religion.

They released the baby for surgery after being ordered to do so by Family Court Judge Cecily L. Morris in April.

“Among our people, we don’t usually go as far as doing open-heart surgery,” the 47-year-old mother said Thursday. “That’s the way we usually see it. I guess we’ll all die anyway, someday.”

The surgery, performed in May, required temporarily stopping the baby’s heart, which is an action only God should have the power to decide, Mrs. Shelter said.

The couple waited with about 15 of their Amish supporters in St. Lawrence County Court during the attorneys’ conference that Mrs. Shetler said was being held to discuss whether to release social services from the case and drop the neglect charges.

Lydia L. Gingrich, Mrs. Shetler’s sister-in-law, was among the men and women who gathered quietly in the second-floor hallway with the Shetlers.

“We should have the right to have our religion,” Mrs. Gingrich said.

The Shetlers have 16 children and live on County Route 10 in the town of Oswegatchie. Their troubles started after their daughter Sarah was born June 7, 2012, at Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center, Ogdensburg, with the condition that doctors said required open-heart surgery. The baby was transferred to a Syracuse hospital, where the Shetlers refused to allow doctors to perform the operation.

They were charged with neglect, and a caseworker from St. Lawrence County’s Department of Social Services was assigned to the case.

A similar case was handled in St. Lawrence County Court in 2009. Eli Hershberger, a young Amish boy from Winthrop, had open-heart surgery in accordance with a court ruling from former Family Court Judge Barbara R. Potter. The boy also had a hole in his heart, and his parents objected to the surgery on religious grounds.

Mrs. Shetler said she and her husband felt they had no choice but to allow the surgery after Judge Morris ordered the baby’s release for the operation this year.

Mrs. Shetler was represented by Assistant County Public Defender James T. Farrell, while Mr. Shetler was defended by the county’s assistant conflict defender, Sean R. McDermott, at the April hearing. The baby was represented by St. Lawrence County Social Services Attorney David Willer.

Sarah celebrated her first birthday last week and is doing well, Mrs. Shetler said.

“She’s sitting up. She’s not walking yet, but Down’s syndrome babies usually don’t at a year old,” she said.

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