Prayer over medical help? Faith healing parents plead guilty in newborn's death
The mother was unaware that she was going to have twins and she had no idea when she was due to give birth either because she did not have any prenatal care
An Oregon-based couple, who believed in faith healing, didn't care enough to get their newborn baby girl medical assistance and instead chose to pray for her recovery, which resulted in infant's death, an inquest found. 25-year-old Sarah Mitchell and 22-year-old Travis Lee Mitchell pleaded guilty on July 9 to negligent homicide and criminal mistreatment in connection to the death of their infant daughter, Gennifer Mitchell.
Gennifer died only hours after she was born in 2017 due to "complications of prematurity."
Mitchells are members of the Followers of Christ church, which is a small religious group that believes in faith-healing. A deputy medical examiner who visited the family residence after the death of Gennifer found that her twin infant, Evelyn, was also finding it hard to breathe. Sarah was unaware that she had been carrying twins and had no idea when she was due to give birth either because she did not have any prenatal care.
The court heard that after the twins - Gennifer and Evelyn - were born, the former struggled to breathe properly for many hours. Members of the couples' church told the family to pray and not lay their hands on the child who was dying. None of the adults called 911. The twins were born in their grandparents' home on March 5, 2017.
Sarah and Travis Mitchell were each sentenced to about seven years in prison. The couple was, however, given credit for the 13 months that they already served in police custody while waiting for heir trial and were also given credit for good behavior. The lawyer read out a statement in court, which carried the couple's confession where they confessed to having failed to give their children medical care, before and after birth. One part of the statement read: “Everyone in the church should always seek adequate medical care for our children."
The Oregonian reported that the statement was signed by Sarah's father, Walter White. According to the newspaper, the couple is allowed to have in-jail visits with their now 16-month-old daughter Evelyn. Sarah's grandfather, who is also named Walter White, founded the Oregon chapter of the church.
This is not the first time a tragedy like this has occurred in the church. Shannon Hickman, Sarah's sister, also lost her baby and is currently serving time for her infant's death. She along with her husband, Dale, is currently serving a six-year prison sentence after they were convicted of second-degree manslaughter for the death of their infant son in 2009. The child passed away from complications less than nine hours after he was born. A local publication reported that Senior Deputy District Attorney Bryan Brock told the reporters present at the court that the end result was a "landmark resolution."
Referring to what will take for the members of the Church to look for medical care when their children fall ill, Brock said: “These are senseless and avoidable deaths, and we keep asking ourselves what will it take." The church has a history of child deaths, and these aren't the only ones.
According to another report published in Oregonian, 15-month-old Ava Worthington died in her parents' house in 2008 after suffering from bronchial pneumonia and infection of the blood. Her parents, just like the Mitchells and the Hickmans, did not seek any medical help and relied instead on faith-healing. Ava's father, Carl, was convicted of misdemeanor criminal mistreatment and was sentenced to two months in jail while her mother, Raylene, was acquitted of all charges.
The same year they lost their daughter, Raylene's 15-year-old brother fell violently ill from a urinary tract blockage and died. His parents claimed that he did not want any medical treatment, so they resorted to trying to heal him through prayer and faith-healing. Both the parents were subsequently convicted of criminally negligent homicide and were given 16-month prison sentences.
Dr. Karen Gunson, Oregon's chief medical examiner, had told PEOPLE previously that she had seen about 20 deaths of members of the church over her career spanning more than three decades. She said: “There were teenagers. There were small children. There were kids that were 10 or 12. There have been teenagers who have been under 18, but have made their own decision to not seek medical care."
“In the past several years they had children who died from complications from natural diseases that could have been treated. Insulin-dependent diabetes, infections like pneumonia…. They died of natural diseases. Some of them were eminently treatable.”