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Eye On Boise

Couple who believe in prayer healing charged in baby’s death

Two members of the Followers of Christ faith-healing sect have been arrested in Oregon in the death of their premature baby; Sarah and Travis Lee Mitchell are accused of murder and criminal mistreatment. Idaho, unlike Oregon, hasn’t acted to remove faith healing as a legal defense from criminal prosecution; lawmakers considered the issue during this year’s legislative session, but couldn’t agree on legislation. The issue also was studied by a legislative interim committee last summer, but it failed to make any recommendations to the full Legislature. Oregon changed its laws in 2011, allowing prosecutions like this one.

Idaho, which also has members of the sect – including some who moved from Oregon after that state changed its laws – is one of just seven states with a faith-healing exemption from its manslaughter laws, according to data submitted to the interim legislative panel by legislative staffers last summer. Many more states have faith-healing exemptions from civil liability for abuse, neglect or failure to report; smaller numbers have exemptions from misdemeanor or felony criminal charges for non-support, neglect or injury to a child. Idaho has exemptions in all four areas. Only one other state, Virginia, has all four exemptions.

Here’s the AP report from Oregon:

By Steven Dubois, Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. (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.

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.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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