Child-abuse case shines light on Paradise couple
Was religion a driving factor, or is there something more?
By Meredith J. Cooper
We don’t know much about the Schatz family. We know the parents, Kevin and Elizabeth, had six biological children and adopted three from Liberia about three years ago. We know Kevin worked as a printer repairman and salesman until being laid off recently. We know the kids were often seen running in a group around their Paradise neighborhood. They were home schooled. And we know that they were likely brought up in a Christian fundamentalist household.
It’s safe to say the Schatzes have stayed mostly below the radar. That all changed when their 7-year-old daughter, Lydia, was pronounced dead early on the morning of Feb. 6.
Lydia, who had been rescued from an orphanage in Liberia, allegedly had mispronounced a word during a reading session at home and faced the consequences. Elizabeth Schatz called 911 to report the girl had stopped breathing. She was in cardiac arrest and, although doctors at Feather River Hospital were able to revive her, she didn’t make it to the Chico Municipal Airport, where she was set to take a plane to Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento.
A follow-up investigation led to the Paradise police finding two other children with visible injuries, one of them Lydia’s sister, 11-year-old Zariah, who was suffering from kidney failure. The Schatzes were arrested Feb. 9. They’ve been charged with first-degree murder, felony torture and misdemeanor cruelty to a child. Their remaining children were taken by Butte County Children’s Services and are now split apart. Zariah is still in the hospital but was released from the intensive-care unit Monday (Feb. 15), according to District Attorney Mike Ramsey.
“She’s doing better,” he said. “The expectation is that in the next couple days—by Wednesday or Thursday—she’ll be out of the hospital.”
This is the first death in Butte County attributed to child abuse since the early 1980s, Ramsey said.
“It’s a case I never wanted to see again. The one in 1982 was horrible enough,” Ramsey said. “These are miserable, awful, tragic cases.”
What’s disturbing to a lot of people who have been following this story is that the Schatzes seem like normal people. They’ve never received a call from Children’s Services before, and they have no criminal record.
Scott McNall, former executive director for the Institute for Sustainable Development at Chico State University, lives down the street from the Schatzes. He’d met Kevin, who, just three weeks ago worked on the McNalls’ fence. He seemed like a normal guy, McNall said.
What the police found when they searched the Paradise home, however, sheds some light on the Schatzes’ private lives, and their adherence to Christian fundamentalist ideals, in particular the writings of one well-known couple.
Police found, on the Schatzes’ bed, a 15-inch section of PVC tube, a quarter-inch thick. They believe it to be the murder weapon, as both Lydia and Zariah had “whip-like” marks that matched the length and width of the pipe. It lay beside a children’s book.
The PVC tube may seem like a strange punishment tool, but for those familiar with the teachings of Christian fundamentalists and authors Michael and Debi Pearl, it is nothing new.
“There was some evidence that indicates they were familiar with the Pearls’ publications,” Ramsey said of the Schatzes. Police interviews with the other children revealed they, too, had been on the receiving end of the “rod.”
On the Pearls’ Web page, nogreaterjoy.org, Michael Pearl writes about “training” children in two sections titled “In Defense of Biblical Chastisement,” parts one and two: “As a rule, do not use your hand. Hands are for loving and helping. If an adult swings his or her hand fast enough to cause pain to the surface of the skin, there is a danger of damaging bones and joints. The most painful nerves are just under the surface of the skin. A swift swat with a light, flexible instrument will sting without bruising or causing internal damage. Many people are using a section of 1/4 inch plumber’s supply line as a spanking instrument. It will fit in your purse or hang around your neck. You can buy them for under $1.00 at Home Depot or any hardware store. They come cheaper by the dozen and can be widely distributed in every room and vehicle. Just the high profile of their accessibility keeps the kids in line.”
He goes on to write, “[W]hen you are engaging the child in serious chastisement, the small of the back down to the thighs is the most effective.”
The Pearls have received widely ranging responses to their teachings since their book on the subject, To Train Up a Child, was published in 1993. Some say they’re teaching child abuse; others argue they’re speaking the words of God. They do not promote beating a child, but they do say, “Some four-year-olds will need five spankings a day, whereas others will need only one a month.”
In 2006, Salon.com reported that a North Carolina mother was “charged with first-degree murder in the death of 4-year-old Sean, who suffocated when wrapped tightly in blankets, reportedly to keep him from hopping out of bed. She is also charged with felony child abuse in connection with welts found on two of Sean’s other five siblings. Nowhere in the Pearls’ book do they advocate restraining with blankets; however, Sean’s siblings had apparently been struck with a particular type of ‘rod’ recommended by the Pearls: a length of quarter-inch plumbing supply line.”
That article, said Ramsey, hit awfully close to home. He expects the Schatzes, who have retained separate attorneys, to plead not guilty at their upcoming court appearance Feb. 25.
Although some people may be quick to jump down the throats of fundamentalist Christians because of this incident, Chico State religious studies professor Joel Zimbelman warns against lumping all people who adhere to the same religion in the same category.
“The big danger that situations like this generate is people start painting all religion, or all conservative religion, or all fundamentalists, with the same brush,” Zimbelman said. “In fact, the frequency of child abuse among conservative Christians and fundamentalists is no higher—and maybe even lower—than the rest of the world.”
While some might argue against him, he said it’s his belief that there was something else going on in this instance, and that it was not merely religion that caused Lydia’s death.
“I think even Debi and Michael Pearl would be dumbfounded by what happened here,” he said. “Religion can be used to justify things.”
To try to better understand the Schatzes and their religious philosophies, Zimbelman broke the basic tenets of Christian fundamentalism down to four: 1. They take a literalist approach to the Bible; 2. They put an emphasis on order, structure and discipline (“Not that that means beating kids with pipes.”); 3. They have a hierarchical model, often a patriarchal model for community and family; 4. They have a Christ-against-culture mentality, which leads many to home schooling and generally staying secluded from mainstream society.
“There are fundamentalists in every denomination, in every congregation,” he added. “Al Qaeda is not the mainstream.”