On a Sunday afternoon in March 2017, Sarah Mitchell, 24, gave birth to two premature twin girls, Ginnifer and Evelyn Mitchell, at her parents’ house in Oregon City, Oregon. The twins arrived seven weeks before Sarah Mitchell’s expected delivery date.
Sarah’s husband, Travis Mitchell, 21, was present for the births along with about 60 other people, including family and fellow members of the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City. Three “birthing assistants” from the church were also present, according to court documents provided to BuzzFeed News.
Members of the Followers of Christ Church practice faith healing and reject medical care and modern medicine in favor of prayer and anointment with oil.
Sarah Mitchell had never had a prenatal ultrasound and did not know that she was carrying twins. The extent of her preparation during pregnancy was reading the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
After the delivery, both Ginnifer and Evelyn developed breathing complications.
For hours after her birth, Ginnifer struggled to take oxygen into her premature, underdeveloped lungs, prosecutors said. Her family and church members “laid hands” on her while her father, Travis Mitchell, anointed her with oil.
While Ginnifer continued to have labored breathing and started losing color, the members took turns praying out loud for her to improve, court documents said.
None of the 60 people present in the house called 911 or rushed the newborn baby to a hospital because of their religious beliefs.
Ginnifer Mitchell died at the house about four hours after she was born. Her autopsy report said that her lungs appeared to be airless and that she suffered from acute respiratory distress.
Her father, Travis Mitchell, later told investigators that he held his daughter as she labored to take her last breaths. “I knew she was dead when she didn’t cry out anymore,” he said.
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, local station KGW8 reported.
Tonsfeldt said that the people at the house gave him vague, “stilted and forced” answers when questioned about the babies’ delivery and that none of them would look at him directly, court documents said.
When he repeatedly advised the family members that Ginnifer’s twin sister, Evelyn, was also at medical risk because of her size, urging them to take her to a hospital, Sarah Mitchell’s father, Walter White, told him, “Thank you for your input.”
Tonsfeldt then contacted law enforcement officials who persuaded the family to seek professional medical care for baby Evelyn, police said. The family eventually took Evelyn to a hospital where she was stabilized with oxygen after showing signs of respiratory distress. She was then transferred to a children’s hospital where she made a full recovery and was released to foster parents.
On Monday, Sarah and Travis Mitchell pleaded guilty to 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.
The couple was sentenced to more than six years in prison.
“We should have sought adequate medical care for our children and everyone in the church should always seek adequate medical care for our children,” Sarah and Travis Mitchell said in a signed statement as part of their plea agreement. White, one of the church’s patriarchs, also signed a similar statement.
All three agreed to have their letters prominently posted inside the church for the congregation to see, Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote said in a statement.
Prosecutors noted that the couple didn’t object to all forms of care from licensed medical professionals: They sought regular veterinary care for their pet dog and cat.
Ginnifer is one of four children who have died in the past nine years because their parents, as members of the Followers of Christ Church, had neglected their medical care in favor of prayer, the DA’s office said.
In 2011, Sarah Mitchell’s sister and brother-in-law, Shannon and Dale Hickman, were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison for the death of their newborn son, David Hickman. David died eight hours after being born due to untreated complications with being born prematurely. He was found in the same master bedroom where Ginnifer died of similar complications.
In the same year, Rebecca and Timothy Wyland were convicted of criminal mistreatment and sentenced to 90 days in jail after their daughter Alayna’s eyesight was permanently damaged because of a “very serious growth on her left eye” that was left untreated, Foote said.
In 2010, Jeffrey and Marci Beagley were convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to 16 months in prison after their 16-year-old son, Neil Beagley, died from an untreated blockage to his intestinal tract.
And in 2009, Carl Brent Worthington was found guilty of criminal mistreatment and sentenced to 60 days in jail after his daughter, Ava, died of untreated bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection, according to the DA. His wife, Raylene, was acquitted of all criminal charges.
Sarah and Travis Mitchell are the first family members of the church to plead guilty and accept criminal responsibility for their behavior, the DA’s statement said.
Foote believes that the couple’s public acknowledgment that they should have sought medical care for their children, and their urging other church members to do the same, “holds great promise moving forward.”
The church’s branch in Oregon was founded by Sarah Mitchell’s grandfather, the Associated Press reported. The church’s origins are rooted in the late 19th-century Pentecostal movement that rejects modern medicine and believes in faith healing, according to the Oregonian.
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,” Foote said in his 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.”