Crime

Oregon couple who believe in prayer healing charged in baby’s death

This undated photo provided by the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office shows Travis Mitchell. Travis Mitchell and his wife, Sarah, members of their faith-healing Followers of Christ Church, were booked Monday, June 5, 2017, in Oregon City, Ore., on accusations of murder and first-degree criminal mistreatment in the March 5, 2017, death of their daughter, Gennifer Mitchell.
This undated photo provided by the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office shows Travis Mitchell. Travis Mitchell and his wife, Sarah, members of their faith-healing Followers of Christ Church, were booked Monday, June 5, 2017, in Oregon City, Ore., on accusations of murder and first-degree criminal mistreatment in the March 5, 2017, death of their daughter, Gennifer Mitchell. AP

Two members of an Oregon church that shuns traditional medicine in favor of prayer and anointing the sick with oils were arrested Monday in the death of their premature baby.

Sarah Mitchell, 24, and Travis Lee Mitchell, 21, are accused of murder and criminal mistreatment. They have been under investigation since March, when Sarah delivered twin girls at her grandparents’ home. One of the babies had breathing problems and died a few hours later.

The couple are members of the Followers of Christ Church, which embraces faith healing.

Several members have been convicted of crimes for failing to seek medical care for their children, including Sarah Mitchell’s sister and brother-in-law. The deaths prompted Oregon lawmakers in 2011 to remove faith healing as a legal defense in murder and manslaughter cases.

In Idaho, lawmakers declined to pass legislation in 2017 that would have removed or amended a faith-healing exemption. To date, Idaho does have an exemption in its statute that allows parents to choose faith-healing over medical treatment for their children, if it is their genuine religious belief.

It was not immediately clear if the Mitchells had attorneys. Relatives hung up the phone when contacted Monday.

Chris Owen, Clackamas County chief deputy district attorney, said the pair would be arraigned Tuesday. He declined further comment, saying the case remains under seal.

Oregon’s chief medical examiner, Karen Gunson, said in March that the baby, named Gennifer, was several weeks premature and her lungs were too underdeveloped to allow her to breathe unassisted for long.

Authorities said the birth was attended by three midwives, family members and other church members. No one called 911 when Gennifer struggled to breathe.

A deputy medical examiner responding to a call about the death noticed the surviving twin, Evelyn, also was struggling to breathe. Law enforcement persuaded the parents to get her medical treatment, and Evelyn survived.

The church, which operates in Oregon and Idaho, has about 1,000 members and is rooted in Pentecostalism, although it is not affiliated with any denomination. Members believe in a literal translation of the Scripture, which states that faith will heal all and if someone dies, it is God’s will.

The church drew criticism in 1998 after The Oregonian newspaper analyzed the deaths of 78 children buried in the church’s graveyard since 1955. At least 21 could have been saved by medical intervention, the newspaper found.

Idaho’s faith-healing exemption dates to 1972 and several bills have been presented to lawmakers over the last few years, but Idaho has repeatedly declined to lift the exemption.

A Children at Risk Task Force was appointed by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter to research the number of Idaho children who apparently died after live-saving care was withheld. In a 2016 report, the Child Fatality Review Team documented 10 of those deaths between 2011 and 2013.

In Idaho, there are Followers of Christ churches or congregations in Caldwell, where the Peaceful Valley cemetery is located, as well as Meridian, Marsing, Cambridge, the Castleford-Buhl area and possibly elsewhere.

Idaho Statesman reporter Ruth Brown contributed to this report.

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