Oregon Parents Accused of Murdering Infant Daughter as Their Church Allegedly Rejects Medical Care
The parents of an infant girl who died a few hours after her birth in March were arrested Monday on accusations of murder and first-degree criminal mistreatment, PEOPLE confirms.
Sarah Elaine Mitchell, 24, and 21-year-old Travis Lee Mitchell were taken into custody after they were indicted by a grand jury Friday after a week of testimony, the Oregonian reports. They remain in custody and are scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday. They have not retained attorneys.
Prosecutors confirmed the charges against them but declined to comment.
The young couple are members of the Followers of Christ, a small religious group that authorities allege rejects medical care, relying on faith healing. The church’s headquarters are in Oregon City, Oregon.
The Mitchells’ child, Gennifer Mitchell, died a few hours after her March 5 birth from “complications of prematurity” at her grandparent’s home in Oregon City, according to the medical examiner.
The M.E. said it was unclear how many months Gennifer was premature because her mother didn’t know how far along her pregnancy was and never received prenatal care.
“This group of people do not see physicians,” Oregon’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Karen Gunson, told PEOPLE in a previous interview. “The only one data point we have on her [Sarah] is the fact that she had a positive pregnancy test — from an over the counter pregnancy test — and she isn’t sure exactly when that was, sometime in the summer time.”
At the time of Gennifer’s death, police said family members and church congregation members, including three birthing assistants, were there for the delivery, but no one called 911.
A church elder contacted the medical examiner’s office to report the girl’s death. Once there, a deputy medical examiner discovered that Gennifer’s twin, Evelyn, needed medical attention and contacted police to make sure she received care.
“My investigator was there and we had several discussions with the group, and expressed to them that they should seek medical care for the living twin. And we also called law enforcement on a welfare check, to tell them, ‘We have a small baby who probably needs to go to the hospital,’ ” Gunson said.
Gennifer’s twin sister was taken to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon. It is unclear if she has since been released.
Sarah Mitchell is the sister of Shannon Hickman, who along with her husband Dale, is serving a six-year prison sentence after being convicted of second-degree manslaughter following the death of their infant son in 2009.
The boy died less than nine hours after delivery. Shannon and Dale Hickman are both members of Followers for Christ Church.
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There have been a number of similar death cases involving the church in the state of Oregon:
In 2008, 15-month-old Ava Worthington died at her parents’ home of bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection. Her parents allegedly provided faith-healing treatment but didn’t seek medical treatment, according to the Oregonian.
Her father, Carl, was convicted of misdemeanor criminal mistreatment and sentenced to two months in jail, the paper reports. Raylene, the mother, was acquitted on all charges.
That same year, Raylene’s 15-year-old brother died after falling ill from a urinary tract blockage. His parents said their son didn’t want medical treatment so they treated him through prayer and faith healing, according to the Oregonian. Both parents were convicted of criminally negligent homicide and given 16-month prison terms, the paper reports.
PEOPLE’s calls to the Followers of Christ Church have gone unreturned.
Gunson said she has seen as many as 20 deaths of church members over her 30-plus year career.
“There were teenagers,” she said. “There were small children. There were kids that were 10 or 12. There have been teenagers who have been under 18, but have made their own decision to not seek medical care.
“In the past several years they had children who died from complications from natural diseases that could have been treated. Insulin-dependent diabetes, infections like pneumonias …. They died of natural diseases. Some of them were eminently treatable.”