Baby of faith-healing church members died from complications of premature birth

The Oregonian/March 13, 2017

By Everton Bailey Jr.

A twin girl born to members of an Oregon City church that believes in faith healing died a few hours later from complications of prematurity, Oregon's chief medical examiner said Monday.

Among the complications were problems with the infant's lungs and oxygen getting to her blood, Dr. Karen Gunson said.

Gunson performed the autopsy and found that Gennifer Mitchell died of natural causes.

Authorities discovered the baby dead on March 5 after an elder from the Followers of Christ Church contacted the Clackamas County Medical Examiner's Office, the county sheriff's office said.

Gennifer apparently was having trouble breathing after being delivered at her grandparents' home earlier that day. Her parents and other church members there didn't call 911, the Sheriff's Office said.

The surviving twin, Evelyn, was later taken to OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital for treatment. Investigators believe the twins were several weeks' premature.

Gunson said Monday that she was still trying to pinpoint when the babies were due.

Gunson noted that premature babies typically are delivered in a hospital and said the surviving child appears to be doing well under medical care. She said she couldn't say for sure if getting the ailing baby to a hospital could have saved her.

"There's no guarantee she would have survived, but it would have given her a chance," Gunson said.

A criminal investigation is ongoing in Gennifer's death. Her parents, 21-year-old Travis Mitchell and 24-year-old Sarah Mitchell, have not been charged.

Sarah Mitchell's sister and brother-in-law, Shannon and Dale Hickman, were sentenced in 2011 to more than six years in prison in the death of their newborn son. He died less than nine hours after he was born two months prematurely in 2009.

An autopsy found he had underdeveloped lungs and staph pneumonia.

Sarah Mitchell and Shannon Hickman are the granddaughters of Walter White, who founded the Followers of Christ Church. Members believe the sick should be anointed by elders, their faith should heal all ailments and death is God's will.

The church's history of child deaths prompted the Oregon Legislature to remove spiritual treatment as a defense for all homicide charges in 2011.

That same year, Rebecca and Timothy Wyland, two other church members, were sentenced to 90 days in jail for first-degree criminal mistreatment related to their daughter's care. As an infant, Alayna Wyland developed an abnormal mass of blood vessels that grew across her face and engulfed her left eye. Child protection authorities took custody, and Alayna improved under court-ordered care.

In 2008, 15-month-old Ava Worthington died at her parents' home of bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection. Her parents, Raylene and Carl Brent Worthington, never sought medical treatment. Carl Worthington was convicted of misdemeanor criminal mistreatment and sentenced to two months in jail. Raylene Worthington was acquitted on all charges.

Also that year, 15-year-old Neil Beagley became ill from a urinary tract blockage and died two weeks later. The Beagleys said they followed their son's wishes in treating him only with prayer and faith healing. Both parents were convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to 16 months in prison.

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