An Oregon couple who chose to pray instead of getting medical help for their daughter has been arrested in her death, officials said.
After Sarah Elaine Mitchell, 24, prematurely delivered twin girls at her parents’ home near Oregon City on March 5, it became apparent that one of the infants was having trouble breathing, investigators said.
But no one called 911, and just hours after her birth, Ginnifer was dead, an affidavit obtained by The Oregonian reported.
She weighed 3 pounds and 6 ounces and was 16 inches long when she died.
Sarah Mitchell and her husband, 21-year-old Travis Lee Mitchell, are members of the Followers of Christ, a small religious group that authorities claim rejects medical care in favor of faith healing.
Church elder Carl Hanson reportedly contacted the county medical examiner directly about an hour and a half after the infant’s death, following an alleged practice that was “the norm” for the church to follow after one of its members died, Deputy Medical Examiner Eric Tonsfeldt told investigators.
When Tonsfeldt arrived, about 60 church members were at the home and the deceased newborn was wrapped in a blanket in her mother’s arms, he said.
The couple allegedly gave “vague” and “stilted and forced” answers that didn’t explain how the baby died, saying that Ginnifer was alive for about four hours before she became lethargic and suddenly stopped breathing, the affidavit said.
Tonsfeldt estimated the infant was born after about 7 1/2 or 8 months, but it was not exactly clear how many months Ginnifer was premature because Sarah Mitchell was not sure how far along she was in her pregnancy and never received prenatal care, officials said.
No one told Tonsfeldt about the birth of a second child until he said Ginnifer needed to be taken for an autopsy to be performed, he said.
Ginnifer’s twin, Evelyn, appeared to be healthy and alert, but she was about the same size as her sister and it worried Tonsfeldt, who relayed his concerns to the Mitchells and others.
Tonsfeldt said he told the girls’ parents and others at least three times that Evelyn was at “medical risk” due to her size and should be brought to a hospital immediately, but Walter White, Sarah Mitchell’s father, allegedly replied, “Thank you for your input,” the affidavit said.
The medical examiner called Oregon City police after he left the home and asked for a welfare check on Evelyn. Officers who visited the home said they told White, Travis Mitchell’s father and another man that Evelyn had to go to the hospital.
Baby Evelyn was initially brought to Willamette Falls Hospital and later transferred to Doernbecher Children's Hospital, The Oregonian reported.
An autopsy found Ginnifer died from complications of prematurity and that her lungs hadn’t developed enough to work on their own, but the medical examiner noted that her death did not come suddenly and there would have been signs that she was struggling to breathe, the affidavit said.
“The death was preventable if Baby Ginnifer had been given the medical care available in a hospital neonatal intensive care unit,” medical examiner Karen Gunson said.
Sarah Mitchell and Travis Mitchell were booked Monday into Clackamas County Jail on accusations of murder by neglect and first-degree criminal mistreatment.
This is not the first time members of the church have come under fire for what have been called preventable child deaths.
Sarah Mitchell is the sister of Shannon Hickman, who, along with her husband Dale, was convicted of second-degree manslaughter following the death of their infant son in 2009. The couple is serving a six-year prison sentence.
Church member Carl Worthington was convicted of misdemeanor criminal mistreatment after he allegedly provided faith-healing but did not seek medical treatment for his daughter, who was 15 months old when she died at home of bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection, The Oregonian reported.
Her mother, Raylene, was acquitted on all charges.
That same year, Raylene’s 15-year-old brother died after becoming sick from a urinary tract blockage. His parents were convicted of criminally negligent homicide after treating him through prayer and faith healing. They claimed their son did not want medical treatment.