Two members of the Followers of Christ Church, an Oregon-based religious sect that doesn't believe in medical treatment and instead prefers to treat its sick with prayer and anointed healing oils, have been charged with murder in connection to the death of their newborn daughter.
KATU reports that on March 5, 24-year-old Sarah Mitchell prematurely gave birth to twin girls at her parents' Oregon City home. At the time, she was with her 21-year-old husband Travis Mitchell, members of her family, fellow members of the church, and a number of midwives. When one of the two infants, Ginnifer, developed breathing problems shortly after birth, the religious group prayed instead of calling 911. Ginnifer died quickly after.
According to WTHR, the medical examiner was only called after the first baby died. After determining that the surviving twin also needed treatment, the examiner called the police, who managed to convince the new parents to seek professional care for their child.
Dr. Karen Gunson, the Oregon medical examiner who performed Ginnifer's autopsy, told KATU that she wasn't sure whether Ginnifer would have survived, even with a hospital's care. But had the infant been born in a hospital, or at least had immediate attention, she might have had a chance. Mitchell estimated that the children were born about two months prematurely.
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These are not the first infant deaths in connection with the Followers of Christ Church. According to Fox News, the sect operates mainly in Oregon and Idaho, has about 1,000 members, and is rooted in Pentecostalism, though the church is officially unaffiliated with any denomination. Members of the church believe the scripture should be translated and followed literally, that faith will heal, and death is God's will.
This is also not the first time the Mitchell family has been part of a story involving the preventable deaths of children. In 2011, Sarah Mitchell's sister Shannon Hickman and Shannon's husband Dale Hickman were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison following the death of their infant son.
Idaho's Followers of Christ Church has been at the center of a debate about the practice of faith healing for several months. Idaho has been seeking to change laws protecting faith healers for years, but members of the Followers of Christ Church have petitioned to continue practicing. The Los Angeles Times reports that Idaho averages three easily preventable infant deaths per year and that members of the sect have a child mortality rate 10 times higher than the rest of the state.
According to Fox News, in 1998, The Oregonian looked into the deaths of 78 children buried at the Followers of Christ Church's graveyard and found that at least a quarter of them could have been prevented with proper medical treatment.