The deputy medical examiner knew before knocking on the door. There was a grim scene waiting for Eric Tonsfeldt inside the single-story house set among the pine trees outside of Oregon City, Ore. — a tragedy that had played out there before. It was around 8:45 on March 5, 2017, and the Clackamas County official was responding to a report of a dead newborn.
The child had not been delivered in a hospital. She wasn’t attended to by doctors and nurses. The baby died amid the murmured prayers of friends and family. But Tonsfeldt knew — as everyone else in the county and many beyond all the way up to the state legislature — that this was a familiar occurrence with members of the Followers of Christ Church, a faith-healing sect numbering around 1,000 members.
Tonsfeldt found the newborn’s mother, Sarah Elaine Mitchell, in the master bedroom cradling the dead child in a blanket. As the official later recounted in a probable cause affidavit obtained by KGW8, the child’s father, Travis Lee Mitchell, was also in the room, as was Sarah’s father, Walter White. Tonsfeldt would say that when he questioned the individuals in the room about the death, the answers were “stilted and forced.” No one would make eye contact. Eventually, he learned the baby — Ginnifer — had been born around 2:55 p.m. Hours later, the baby stopped breathing, dying around 7 p.m. As Tonsfeldt examined the child, he noted Ginnifer was 3 pounds, 6 ounces. The baby had been born prematurely at 32 weeks.
Only then did the family tell Tonsfeldt about the twin born alongside Ginnifer. When Tonsfeldt inspected Evelyn, he told the family the surviving child was “at medical risk” and must go to the hospital. He told the family twice.
“Thank you for your input,” Walter White replied both times, according to KGW8.
On Monday, Ginnifer’s parents Sarah and Travis Mitchell — 25 and 22, respectively — both pleaded guilty to criminal negligent homicide and criminal mistreatment, Clackamas County District Attorney John S. Foote announced in a statement.
The Mitchells are the fifth set of parents from the Followers of Christ Church to face criminal charges after failing to secure medical attention for their children in the past nine years, according to the prosecutor. In 2009, Sarah Mitchell’s sister Shannon Hickman delivered a premature baby boy in the same room where Ginnifer died, according to the Oregonian. The child passed away eight hours after his birth, and later both Hickman and her husband were convicted of second-degree manslaughter.
“For far too long, children in this church have been needlessly suffering and dying because their parents, as a condition of their religious beliefs, have refused to seek medical care for their children,” the district attorney’s office stated. “And for the past 17½ years, the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office has been working diligently to hold criminally responsible any parents who fail to provide adequate medical care for their children which causes their death or serious physical injury.”
As a sign of the church’s willingness to finally stop the pattern of newborn deaths, the church agreed as part of the plea agreement to post the following statement inside its building: “Everyone in the church should always seek adequate medical care for our children.”
Read the full story at The Washington Post