Faith-healing Oregon parents who denied baby medical care plead guilty to newborn death

USA Today/July 10, 2018

Portland, Oregon — The parents of a baby girl who died because she didn't receive medical treatment in favor of faith healing took a plea deal on Monday.

Travis and Sarah Mitchell both pleaded guilty to criminal negligent homicide and criminal mistreatment, according to John Foote, District Attorney for Clackamas County. The couple will spend 6 years and 8 months in prison.

The Michells' daughter, Ginnifer, developed breathing complications and died shortly after her birth in Oregon City on March 5, 2017.

The pair were members of the Followers of Christ Church. Followers of Christ Church members believe in using prayer and oil over medical care.

According to those in the home, Ginnifer was alive, breathing and being fed from an eye dropper for about four hours after her birth, court documents revealed. After four hours, she stopped fussing, became lethargic and stopped breathing. They estimated that Ginnifer died at about 7 p.m.

After the baby died, a church elder, Carl Hanson contacted Clackamas County Deputy Medical Examiner Eric Tonsfeldt.

Tonsfeldt determined that the babies were born prematurely, at about 32 weeks. Ginnifer weighted 3 pounds 16 ounces and was 16 inches long.

About 60 people, including family members and church members, were at the home for the birth, Tonsfeldt said. No one in the home called 911.

After Tonsfeldt examined the deceased child, family members informed him Sarah had also given birth to a twin girl, Evelyn. He asked to see her and was taken into the master bedroom bathroom, where several women were sitting in chairs caring for a similar-sized baby.

Tonsfeldt said Evelyn appeared healthy, but he told family members in the home that because of her size and because her twin sister had just died, Evelyn was "at medical risk" and needed to go to the hospital. He repeated this instruction two times. On both occasions, Sarah Mitchell's father responded with the words, "Thank you for your input."

After the medical examiner left the home, he called Oregon City Police and requested a "welfare check" on the surviving baby to make sure the family had taken her to the hospital.

When officers arrived, Sarah Mitchell's father came to the door and the officers told him they were there to do a welfare check on the baby. He asked the officers to wait, went back in the house and returned with Travis Mitchell's father and another unidentified man.

The officers again said why they were there and that the baby needed to go to the hospital. Joshua Mitchell asked the officers, "Are you telling us we have to go to the hospital?" The officers responded yes. The three men went back inside the house. After about five minutes, they returned and agreed to take Evelyn to the hospital in a personal car.

Travis Mitchell left with the baby in one car and drove to Willamette Falls Hospital with the patrol car following behind.

Evelyn was seen at the Willamette Falls Hospital emergency room, stabilized there and then transferred to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Oregon Health & Science University.

An autopsy of Ginnifer performed the next morning showed that her lungs were not developed enough to work on their own. X-rays taken during the autopsy showed the lungs had collapsed.

As part of the plea deal, the Mitchells signed written statements that read: “We should have sought medical care for our children and everyone in the church should always seek adequate medical care for our children.”

Sarah Mitchell is a granddaughter of the church founder, Walter White. Her father is also named Walter White, according to the Oregonian. Her father signed the statement, which will be prominently posted inside the church for all to read, under the terms of the plea agreement.

This is not the first infant death from Oregon Followers of Christ members.

Church members Shannon and Dale Hickman in 2011 were convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison following the 2009 death of their infant son two hours after delivery.

Sarah Mitchell and Shannon Hickman are sisters.

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