Faith-healing parents plead guilty in death of newborn twin

By Maxine Bernstein | Oregon Live | July 9, 2018

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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 couple's newborn, Ginnifer, died March 5, 2017, from complications of premature birth. Her lungs appeared to be "airless'' and she suffered from acute respiratory distress syndrome, the state medical examiner found.

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.

Travis and Sarah Mitchell, dressed in black-and white-striped jail jumpsuits, sat beside each other, between their defense lawyers. They chose not to address the court when given an opportunity during the sentencing.

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 Mitchells each initially were charged in June 2017 with murder by neglect and two counts of first-degree criminal mistreatment, accused of withholding medical attention from both daughters.

"This was not a murder case,'' Houze said.

According to prosecutors, Sarah Mitchell learned she was pregnant on Aug. 24, 2016, through a home pregnancy test. She estimated her delivery date to be April 23, 2017.

Seven weeks before her expected delivery, her water broke about 2 a.m. on March 5 and she went into premature labor. She and her husband drove to her parents' home to deliver what they believed would be a single baby. Having never had a prenatal ultrasound, Sarah Mitchell was unaware she was pregnant with twins.

Had she had an ultrasound, it would have revealed that one of the babies hadn't turned in utero, according to prosecutors.

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.

During seven months of pregnancy, Sarah Mitchell received no prenatal care and took no supplements, though the couple have medical insurance with Kaiser Permanente through Travis Mitchell's job. The sole extent of her preparation was reading the best-selling pregnancy primer "What to Expect When You Are Expecting.''

In contrast, the couple sought regular veterinary care, including wellness checks, medications and vaccinations, for their dog and cat, prosecutors wrote in court papers.

"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.