A couple who believe in faith healing was arrested on murder charges after their newborn daughter died just hours after birth.
In March, Ginnifer Mitchell was one of two twin girls born to Followers of Christ Church members Sarah and Travis Lee Mitchell, The Oregonian reported. The baby suffered breathing problems and died hours later in Sarah’s mother’s home, where she was born. None of the midwives, family members, or church followers who were present in the home called 911, the sheriff’s office said.
Church elder Carl Hanson contacted the county medical examiner’s office to report Ginnifer’s death about an hour and a half after it occurred, a search warrant affidavit obtained by The Oregonian states.
It is “very common, and in fact the norm” for a Followers of Christ member to contact the medical examiner’s office directly after someone in the church’s community has died, Eric Tonsfeldt, the county deputy medical examiner, said. It is usually Hanson who makes the call, although there were sixty members of the church at the home when Ginnifer died.
Ginnifer was found by Tonsfeldt wrapped in a blanket in Sarah’s arms in the home’s master bedroom. Travis, the couple’s two fathers, and a birthing assistant were also present.
Tonsfeldt said he initially received “vague,” “stilted and forced” answers from them that did not explain how Ginnifer died, according to the affidavit. The couple explained that for four hours, Ginnifer was alive and then became “less fussy,” lethargic and suddenly stopped breathing. Before she died, Ginnifer was fed milk through an eye dropper.
When Tonsfeldt told the family he would be taking Ginnifer for an autopsy, he was informed about five minutes later that there was a second baby born, Evelyn. He was then led into the bathroom where several people were taking care of the girl. Tonsfeldt found Evelyn was “at medical risk” and the Mitchells had to be persuaded to allow the baby girl to receive professional treatment, according to The Oregonian. She was later admitted to OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.
The twin girls were believed to have been born several weeks prematurely. Ginnifer weighed 3 pounds, 6 ounces when she died.
An autopsy was performed on Ginnifer. It found that she died from complications of prematurity and that her lungs had not developed enough to work on their own, according to The Oregonian. The report stated that Ginnifer would not have died suddenly and that signs would have occurred that she was struggling to breathe, including skin discoloration.
“[The] death was preventable if Baby Ginnifer had been given the medical care available in a hospital neonatal intensive care unit,” Oregon State Medical Examiner Karen Gunson is noted as saying in the affidavit.
On June 5, 24-year-old Sarah and 21-year-old Travis were charged with murder by neglect and first-degree criminal mistreatment for the death of their daughter, Ginnifer.
Criminal investigations have occurred against several members of the church for not getting their children medical treatment — and in some cases, their subsequent death.
Sarah’s sister and brother-in-law, Shannon and Dale Hickman, were sentenced in 2011 to more than six years in prison for the death of their newborn son. He died less than nine hours after he was born prematurely with underdeveloped lungs and staph pneumonia.
Members of the Followers of Christ Church believe the sick will be anointed by elders and that their faith heals sickness. If death occurs, they believe it is God’s will.