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July 12, 2018

Will guilty plea and statement, after another baby's death, deter reliance on faith-healing more than prior prison terms for Oregon church members?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this remarkable local crime and punishment story out of Oregon, headlined "Faith-healing parents plead guilty in death of newborn twin.' Here are some essentials (with a few details emphasized) from a case that highlights the potential limits of traditional punishment to deter when individuals are motivated by an even higher power:

The parents of a twin girl who died hours after a home birth attended by dozens of people from the faith-healing Followers of Christ Church pleaded guilty Monday to negligent homicide and criminal mistreatment.  It marked the fifth criminal case in Clackamas County after a child's death in the church community over the last nine years but the first to end in a plea deal.  The mother, Sarah Elaine Mitchell, 25, and father, Travis Lee Mitchell, 22, each were sentenced to prison for six years and eight months.

In an unusual development, the Mitchells not only acknowledged their failure to provide necessary medical care for their newborn but also said in a statement read aloud by one of their lawyers that "everyone in the church should always seek adequate medical care for our children.''

Sarah and Travis Mitchell are members of the Followers of Christ, which traces its origin to the Pentecostal movement of the late 19th century. Sarah Mitchell is a granddaughter of the church founder, Walter White. Her father is also named Walter White.  Sarah Mitchell's father signed the statement, which will be prominently posted inside the church for all to read, under the terms of the plea agreement....

The guilty pleas came in a Clackamas County courtroom before more than 50 church supporters and Multnomah County Circuit Judge Eric J. Bergstrom, who who helped the parties reach a settlement.... Senior Deputy District Attorney Bryan Brock called the outcome of the case, with the couple accepting responsibility and issuing a public statement, a "landmark resolution."

"These are senseless and avoidable deaths, and we keep asking ourselves what will it take" to convince others in the church to get the right medical care for their children, Brock said.  He said he hoped the message will be for church followers to "seek medical attention and prayer. They're not mutually exclusive.''

Sarah Mitchell's lawyer Stephen Houze called the couple "utterly sincere, decent, caring human beings," who have suffered with the loss of one of their children while separated in custody. They have had in-jail visits with their surviving daughter, who is now 16 months old and bonding with each parent, Houze said. She remains in foster care. The parents are accepting responsibility for their actions "knowing a price must be paid," Houze said.

The Mitchells' baby died in the master bedroom at the Oregon City home of Sarah Mitchell's parents.  It was the same place where Sarah Mitchell's older sister Shannon Hickman delivered a premature baby boy who died eight hours after birth in September 2009.

The first of the twins, Evylen, was born in a breech position -- bottom first, a significant potential complication -- at 2:30 p.m., weighing only 3 pounds, 8 ounces, nearly two months premature. Twenty-three minutes later, Ginnifer was born at 2:53 p.m., weighing only 3 pounds, 6 ounces. Breathing problems persisted for both newborns but no one called 911 or took the girls to a hospital. At 4:36 p.m., a relative texted others, asking, "R u guys hearing that the second baby is dark and they r wanting prayers?" according to investigators.

Over four hours, Ginnifer fought for her life, trying to take oxygen into her underdeveloped lungs. At 6:05 pm., Travis Mitchell "laid on hands" and the family took turns praying for healing as the baby continued labored breathing and changed colors. Ginnifer died at 7 p.m. that day. "I knew she was dead when she didn't cry out anymore,'' her father said, according to court documents.

Both Sarah and Travis Mitchell admitted in interviews that their daughter's death was just like the Hickman case, Brock wrote in court papers.  A jury convicted Hickman and her husband of second-degree manslaughter and they were sentenced to six years and three months in prison for not seeking medical treatment for their son born at 32 weeks. "The Mitchells were more knowledgeable of the risks and consequences to their newborns from having experienced the Hickman case," Brock wrote in court documents.

Also present at the birth were Sarah Mitchell's in-laws, three mid-wife birthing assistants and other family, including Sarah Mitchell's eldest sister, Stephanie Edwards, and her husband, Brian, as well as church members....

"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," the Clackamas County District Attorney's Office said in a statement. "However, we continue to stand ready to do so if the members of that congregation do not heed the call of this family."

The couple showed no emotion in court. As each stood to be handcuffed by sheriff's deputies before they were led out of the courtroom, Travis Mitchell, a 2014 graduate of Oregon City High School, mouthed "I love you" to his parents. The Mitchells will get credit for the 13 months they've already been in custody and credit for good time served. They'll face three years of post-prison supervision.

I always find stories of parents convicted and imprisoned for allowing their children to die are always heart-wrenching, and I find it almost hard to believe that the same large family would allow two newborns to die in the same room in their house in seemingly the same way only years apart.  And, as the title of this post is meant to highlight, it is remarkable to realize that a prior manslaughter conviction with a significant prison term was itself not enough to deter the family from the same sort of criminal behavior the second time around.

For the sake of everyone involved, I sure hope a statement prominently posted inside the church will start leading these church members to see the importance of getting traditional medical care. But I can understand why prosecutors want to stress their willingness to keep prosecuting neglectful parents. 

July 12, 2018 at 10:16 AM | Permalink


"...twin girl who died hours after a home birth attended by dozens of people from the faith-healing Followers of Christ Church..."

One wonders if there were any mandated reporters of child abuse or endangerment among the audience. Prosecuting their failure to report or at least sending them warning letters.

To my knowledge, there is no duty to report crime. All the states should pass legislation requiring at least the dialing of 911, with $100 fine for not doing so. Such a law would go a long way to deter crime, such as this. The quiet dialing of 911, even without speaking, would have brought the authorities to the location. It would not only have saved the baby. It would have saved the parents from a prison sentence.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 12, 2018 10:56:23 AM

What difference does it make whether the human is killed outside the womb, inside the womb, or prevented from even being conceived of in the first place?

Posted by: Daniel | Jul 12, 2018 4:16:43 PM

The lawyer calls these folks "called the couple "utterly sincere, decent, caring human beings," I beg to differ. Letting your child die is murder in my book. Similar mindset as the Inquisitors who burned "heretics" at the stake, firmly believing they were saving the souls of the miscreants.

Posted by: Emily | Jul 12, 2018 7:57:26 PM

I see a huge difference between not providing aid and actively causing injury. So long as their behavior landed in the former category I have a very hard time seeing any crime having occurred. And note that I don't see complications arising from a breech birth as being 'active' due to the fact that the mother has no input into whether that happens or not.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 14, 2018 12:04:14 PM

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