Parents receive lengthy jail sentence after not seeking medical help for their dying baby due to religious beliefs
In March of last year, Sarah Mitchell, 24, gave birth to two premature twin girls at her parent's house in Oregon City, Oregon. The girls, Ginnifer and Evelyn, arrived seven weeks before their due date.
Travis Mitchell, Sarah's husband, 21, was present at the birth along with around 60 other people, including extended family are members of the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City. According to court documents, obtained by Buzzfeed News, three "birthing assistants" from the church were also present at the birth.
The church is purportedly known for its rejection of medical care and modern medicine, and instead, they favour prayer and anointment with oil. As a result, Sarah Mitchell had never had a prenatal ultrasound was not aware that she was carrying twins. It's believed that the extent of her preparation was simply reading the book What to Expect When You're Expecting.
However, after the delivery, both newborns struggled to breathe and Ginnifer struggled to take oxygen into her premature, underdeveloped lungs. According to prosecutors, her family and members of the church laid hands on her while Travis anointed her with oil.
According to the court documents, the 60 people continued to pray for the baby while she started to lose colour and have laboured breathing. None of those in attendance opted to call 911 or rush her to the hospital, as it didn't agree with their religious beliefs.
Ginnifer died at the house four hours after she was born. According to her autopsy, her lungs were airless and she suffered from acute respiratory distress. Travis Mitchell, Ginnifer's father, told investigators that he held his daughter while she took her last breaths. "I knew she was dead when she didn't cry out anymore," he said.
Local news station KGW8 reported that a church elder then reported Ginnifer's death to Clackamas County Deputy Medical Examiner Eric Tonsfeldt, who found Sarah Mitchell in a bedroom, cradling her dead infant who was wrapped in a blanket.
The court documents reveal that Tonsfeldt claims that the people at the house gave him vague, "stilted and forced" answers when they were questioned about the babies and none of them would look at him directly.
Tonsfeldt also alleges that after advising the family that Evelyn needed urgent medical assistance, Sarah Mitchell's father, Walter White, simply said: "Thank you for your input."
The family eventually took baby Evelyn to a hospital where she was stabilised by medical professionals. She was then transferred to a children's hospital where she made a full recovery and was eventually released to foster parents.
On Monday, Sarah and Travis Mitchell were sentenced to more than six years in prison on charges of criminally negligent homicide and criminal mistreatment for their actions in the death of Ginnifer and for their actions related to her twin, Evelyn, who survived.
In a signed statement released as part of their plea agreement, Sarah and Travis said that they "should have sought adequate medical care for our children and everyone in the church should always seek adequate medical care for our children."
Ginnifer is one of four children who has died in the past nine years as a result of their parents being members of the Followers of Christ Church and neglecting medical care. It's reported that at least 21 of the 78 children buried in the church's cemetery from 1995–98 could have survived with medical intervention, according to a 1998 analysis by the Oregonian.
"For far too long, children in this church have been needlessly suffering and dying because their parents, as a condition of their religious beliefs, have refused to seek medical care for their children," Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote said in a statement.
"We hope that this office is never again forced to prosecute parents in The Followers of Christ church for neglecting the medical care of their children," Foote said.
"However, we continue to stand ready to do so if the members of that congregation do not heed the call of this family."