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Police Investigate Death of Newborn Whose Parents’ Church Allegedly Rejects Medical Care

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Followers of Christ Church
Rick Bowmer/AP

Police in Oregon are investigating the death of an infant girl whose parents belong to a church that allegedly believes in faith healing and rejects medical care, PEOPLE confirms.

The baby, 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 Oregon medical examiner. The medical examiner says it’s unclear how many months she was premature because her mother didn’t know how far along her pregnancy was and never received prenatal care.

Gennifer’s parents, 24-year-old Sarah Mitchell and Travis Mitchell, 21, are members of the Followers of Christ, a religious group that allegedly relies on prayer and anointment with oil for healing. The church’s headquarters are in Oregon City. The couple could not be reached for comment.

“This group of people do not see physicians,” Oregon’s chief medical examiner Dr. Karen Gunson tells PEOPLE. “The only one data point we have on her 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.”

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Police allege family members and church congregation members, including three birthing assistants, were there for the delivery — but that no one called 911.

A church elder contacted the medical examiner’s office to report the 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 says.

Gennifer’s twin sister is currently in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

Church’s History of Similar Cases

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.

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 spent two months in jail. Raylene, the mother, was acquitted on all charges, the paper reports.

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.

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Gunson says she has seen as many as 20 deaths of church members over her 30-plus year career.

“There were teenagers,” she says. “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.”

PEOPLE’s calls to the Followers of Christ Church went unreturned.

The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office says once the investigation into Gennifer’s death is complete, the case will be delivered to the district attorney’s office for possible charges.