Faith-Healing Couple Who Rejected Medical Care for Dying Baby Plead Guilty to Negligent Homicide

Sarah and Travis Mitchell, who belong to a faith-healing sect, prayed for their newborn as she changed colors and struggled to breathe. They were sentenced to six years in prison.

Beth Nakamura/AP

Two members of an Oregon church that believes in faith healing pleaded guilty to negligent homicide this week in the death of their newborn daughter, who spent hours struggling to breath without ever receiving medical treatment.

Travis and Sarah Mitchell—who prayed over their dying child instead of seeking medical care—were sentenced to six years and eight months in prison on Monday, Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote said in a statement.

“We should have sought adequate medical care for our children and everyone in the church should always seek adequate medical care for our children,” the couple said in a statement.

Their admission will be posted inside the Followers of Christ Church, the faith-healing sect that they belong to, according to Foote.

Congregants of Followers of Christ Church, a non-denominational group that’s based in Oregon and Idaho, believe that faith alone will heal all, so they eschew medical treatment, according to The Oregonian. The church was founded in 1880 by Walter White during the Pentecostal “healing movement” of the late 19th century, according to the paper.

Born premature, the Mitchells’ daughter Ginnifer was born in June 2017 and lived for just four hours before dying of airless lungs and acute respiratory distress syndrome, The Oregonian reported. Her twin sister, Evelyn, survived and is currently in foster care.

“There’s a lot that could’ve been done to provide care,” Dr. Lori Frasier, the head of the Child Abuse Pediatrics Division at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, told The Daily Beast.

“Respiratory illness in infants is extremely common. Interventions include respiratory support and oxygen,” Dr. Frasier explained. “In this day in modern medicine we do a good job of treating people.”

While the baby—who weighed just 3 pounds, 6 ounces—struggled for her life, family and friends placed their hands on the child and took turns praying as Ginnifer “continued labored breathing and changed colors,” The Oregonian reported.

According to the outlet, a relative texted,  “R u guys hearing that the second baby is dark and they r wanting prayers?”

The Mitchells chose to treat their dying child with prayers, but they took their pets to the veterinarian for routine check-ups, The Oregonian reported. Sarah Mitchell refrained from taking supplements during pregnancy, but she and her husband did read the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting to prepare for their new child. The couple was unaware they were going to have twins.

Baby Ginnifer is just one of many children who have died in the care of Followers of Christ members. Seventy-eight children are buried in the church’s graveyard—and 21 of them could have been saved with medical care, according to The Oregonian’s investigation of the sect.

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“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.

Sarah Mitchell’s sister, Shannon Hickman, and her husband were sentenced to second-degree manslaughter in 2011 for the death of their son, who died hours after birth in 2009, according to the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office. Fellow congregants Rebecca and Timothy Wyland served 90 days in jail after their daughter, Alayna, developed an eye growth that permanently damaged her vision.

Followers of Christ members Jeffrey and March Beagley were sentenced to 16 months in prison in 2010 after their 16-year-old son died from “untreated blockage to his intestinal tract.” In 2009, Timothy Worthington served a month in jail after his daughter died from untreated pneumonia and a blood infestation, according to the Clackamas County District Attorney’s office.

The widespread child abuse caused Oregon officials to remove religious treatment as a homicide defense in 2011, The Oregonian reported. Across the country, 34 states have religious exemptions in child-abuse laws.

In most cases, abusive parents can be “prosecuted under a felony law,” according to Dr. Frasier.

“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.