SPINDALE, North Carolina – As a court-appointed advocate for 2 foster boys, it was Nancy Burnette’s job to make sure they had been in good palms. So as a part of her casework, she visited Word of Faith Fellowship, the evangelical church they attended with the couple looking for to undertake them.
What occurred subsequent haunts her: In the center of the service, the chanting and singing out of the blue stopped, Burnette stated, and the fiery pastor pointed at Burnette, accusing her of being “wicked.” ”You are right here to trigger strife!” she recalled Jane Whaley shouting, as she sensed congregants begin to converge upon her. “You do not suppose these youngsters are imagined to be right here!”
Terrified, Burnette left, however not earlier than promising the boys, ages Four and virtually 2, that she would return — a promise she in the end couldn’t preserve.
“What I didn’t know was how hard Word of Faith would fight — and the tactics they would use — to keep the kids,” Burnette advised The Associated Press.
That was not the one time Word of Faith Fellowship’s leaders and members have used positions of authority, intimidation or deception to deliver kids into the church’s folds or preserve them from leaving — usually at Whaley’s behest, in line with dozens of interviews and a whole bunch of pages of courtroom data, police studies and social providers paperwork obtained by the AP.
As a end result, kids have been launched to generally violent church practices that run counter to the North Carolina legal guidelines designed to guard them, the AP discovered.
The state promotes “family preservation,” designed to forestall the “unnecessary placement of children away from their families.” But the AP discovered that some younger congregants have been separated from their dad and mom for as much as a decade — bounced from household to household — as leaders attempt to maintain them within the church.
In addition, three single moms advised the AP longtime Word of Faith Fellowship member who was a county courtroom clerk bypbaded the foster system and finally received everlasting custody of their kids, despite the fact that a choose known as the clerk’s conduct inappropriate. Two of the moms stated the clerk approached them and supplied to quickly preserve the youngsters whereas they served their jail time.
The AP interviewed a dozen former congregants who stated they’d personally witnessed the three kids residing with the clerk being subjected to intense screaming periods known as “blasting” aimed toward casting out demons, or being held down, shaken or crushed.
Even as she battled desperately for her younger son, one of many three girls had advised a choose that, if she couldn’t have him, the boy can be higher off in foster care because of the church’s abusive nature.
A lawyer for Whaley, Noell Tin, disputed the AP’s conclusions.
“The notion that church members separate children from their parents at Ms. Whaley’s urging is preposterous,” he stated. “The idea that a thriving and diverse church like the Word of Faith Fellowship functions in this manner is an insult to its members.”
Under Whaley’s management, Word of Faith Fellowship has grown to about 750 congregants in North Carolina and a complete of almost 2,000 members in its church buildings in Brazil and Ghana and thru affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and different nations.
As a part of an ongoing investigation into the church, the AP already has cited dozens of former members as saying congregants had been recurrently punched and choked in an effort to “purify” sinners. Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers, they stated — even crying infants, who had been vigorously shaken and generally smacked to banish devils.
Now, the AP has uncovered quite a few situations during which Word of Faith leaders turned kids in opposition to their dad and mom, with the youngsters then taken in or adopted by different church households. Ex-members advised the AP of at the very least two dozen such circumstances, which they attributed to the church making an attempt to maintain minors from leaving the congregation.
One former congregant, for instance, stated Whaley pressured her into mendacity about her sister being abusive when the girl needed to depart along with her 4 kids, resulting in a protracted custody battle that resulted within the youngsters residing with a outstanding minister.
Another former follower advised the AP he was separated from his organic household as a teen and locked up for months till he started referring to a different church couple as “mom and dad.”
In each case, kids’s lives had been beneath the full management of Whaley and the leaders imposing her guidelines. They had been educated within the church college and largely remoted from the skin world, and prohibited from watching tv or celebrating their birthdays or Christmas. Any violations may very well be met with bodily or verbal punishment.
The church has a track: “Happy, happy, happy, happy are the children whose God is the Lord.” It serves as a cue for younger congregants to placed on a cheerful face, irrespective of how they’re feeling.
“One thing that is confusing for people in the community is how these children can be so well-behaved and so well-dressed if things are so bad,” stated John Huddle, whose relationship together with his youngsters was severed when he broke with the church. “But the clothing can cover the bruises and the smiles can hide the hurt.”
POWER AND INFLUENCE
Pregnant and dealing with a jail sentence, Keela Blanton stated she thought her prayers had been answered when a pleasant courtroom clerk supplied to take care of the kid till she was again on her toes.
Blanton was dealing with about eight months behind bars for numerous expenses, together with making an attempt to acquire managed substances by fraud, when Laura Bridges — a Word of Faith member who was then a Rutherford County clerk — approached her, she stated. Afraid her son would find yourself in everlasting state care, she agreed.
In July 2008, when the boy was 5 days previous, Blanton signed an settlement granting Bridges short-term guardianship till her launch from jail, when she would resume “full responsibility for my child,” in line with a doc obtained by the AP.
When she acquired out two months later, Blanton stated Bridges and her husband advised her that they now cherished the boy and needed to badist take care of him. He spent a lot of his time with the couple, which Blanton stated appeared like a blessing till he started seeming anxious and got here residence with bruises on his face.
In August 2012, Blanton refused to ship the boy again to the Bridges and filed baby abuse studies with the sheriff’s workplace and social providers authorities.
A medical evaluation carried out by a counselor Blanton employed stated the then Four-year-old boy confirmed “signs of being coerced and brainwashed.” He “became hysterical” about lacking church providers and appeared afraid of being “dealt with” if he broke church guidelines, the report stated.
The counselor famous that the boy moist his pants twice in the course of the interview, and stated Laura Bridges had instructed him to soil himself throughout visits with Blanton.
Videos of the boy obtained by the AP present him overwrought over seemingly minor issues. “They don’t wear blue jeans!” he sobbed in a single video, apparently afraid to return to the Bridges in garments forbidden by the church.
“I felt my son was being brainwashed,” Blanton advised a choose throughout an emergency custody listening to, in line with a recording of the proceedings.
A social employee testified that Blanton was a match mom with a tidy, “safe” residence and famous that she had custody of her different kids — two older boys and a youthful daughter. But the Bridges described Blanton as a prison who lived with a drug supplier in a grimy home and infrequently requested to see the boy.
The choose awarded the Bridges major custody, saying Blanton had allowed her son to largely dwell with the couple for 4 years and that it might be traumatic to take away him. But he additionally advised the couple’s lawyer, “You haven’t shown me here that she is not a fit and proper person to at least have some relationship with this child.”
Blanton stated she would slightly the kid be in foster care than with the Bridges, however the choose stated he had no grounds to position him within the state’s palms.
Throughout the courtroom battle, Blanton stated members of the church adopted her and took footage of her household, and that the stress lastly pushed her over the sting. In October 2012, she tried suicide and was admitted for psychiatric take care of a number of days, in line with courtroom data.
In February 2014, one other choose gave sole custody to the Bridges, citing Blanton’s “prolonged failure to request, establish and exercise regular contact with the child.” He additionally famous that she had no steady employment, continued to interrupt the regulation with offenses reminiscent of driving with a suspended license, and moved 19 instances over the course of 5 years.
Blanton stated the Bridges lied about how ceaselessly she visited the boy and infrequently prevented her from seeing him. She now has not seen her son in 5 years and sobbed when she advised him by way of the AP, “Momma didn’t walk away. I love you with all my heart — everything that’s in me.”
In an announcement to the AP, Bridges stated she met Blanton on the clerk’s workplace however then developed a friendship along with her. She took the boy in at Blanton’s request, she wrote, including, “She was in a difficult time and I wanted to help.”
In awarding full custody to the Bridges, nevertheless, the choose famous that Bridges “while working in the court of clerk’s office, communicated with Ms. Blanton her willingness to help with the unborn child while Blanton was in the courtroom awaiting transfer” to jail. “The court does not condone nor deem appropriate such contact by court officials under such circumstances,” he wrote.
It wasn’t the primary time Bridges used her place to acquire a baby from a troubled girl, one other younger mom advised the AP.
The girl stated she was dealing with drug expenses in 2005 when Bridges approached her and supplied to take care of her daughter, who was not but a yr previous. When the girl’s three kids had been taken away after what she blamed on a failed drug check, the Bridges stored the youngest. The girl — who requested that her identify not be used as a result of she feared shedding entry to her daughter for talking out — even was ordered to pay baby help to the couple, courtroom data present.
And a 3rd younger girl with a drug downside and a warrant for her arrest stated Bridges known as her “out of nowhere” in 2008, recognized herself as courtroom worker and supplied to take her baby when he was born.
Denikka Simpson stated in written messages to the AP that she was then in no place to take care of the kid, however felt manipulated into signing adoption paperwork.
“I was told I could get him back,” stated Simpson, who has a historical past of drug-related expenses and different offenses. But when she requested for the boy, she stated the Bridges refused, telling her that he would get in contact along with her sometime if he selected to take action. She has not seen him since he was 6 weeks previous, she stated.
Bridges additionally denied approaching the opposite two girls and stated they, too, got here to her looking for badist caring for his or her kids.
“We only became parents to these children after a number of independent persons charged with safeguarding child welfare determined that they should be with us,” she wrote.
She additionally insisted the youngsters had by no means been mistreated, writing, “Anyone who says otherwise is not being truthful.”
Benjamin Cooper, one of many ex-members who advised the AP they witnessed the youngsters residing with the Bridges being abused, stated the three girls won’t have been preferrred moms however that their youngsters would have been higher off within the foster-care system.
“Maybe these weren’t great parents, but that doesn’t mean the kids should have ended up in the church, where abuse is pervasive,” stated Cooper, who left the congregation in 2014. “The church is the last place they should have ended up.”
MONEY AND INFLUENCE
For years, Word of Faith Fellowship has used its muscle — attorneys, cash and affect — in custody, foster-care and different circumstances involving kids, the AP discovered.
Even if it meant mendacity, former members stated, ministry leaders have recurrently attacked dad and mom who launched custody battles for his or her youngsters once they broke with the church, staunchly taking the aspect of the remaining mother or father.
Ex-follower Natasha Cherubino witnessed that firsthand when her household was concerned in a bitter custody combat in 2000.
A choose awarded joint custody of Cherubino’s three younger step-siblings to their divorcing dad and mom, Ben and Pamela McGee, regardless of noting in his ruling that Word of Faith had tried to train “complete control” over the youngsters and that he believed the church’s practices damage youngsters. The choose stated the youngsters couldn’t be paddled or blasted — restrictions that Cherubino and different former followers stated church leaders flouted.
Cherubino stated the leaders coerced the youngsters into throwing suits earlier than weekend visits with their father, who had damaged with the church. “And when the children returned, they were “interrogated about what they did at their father’s home,” she stated.
Finally, frightened in regards to the stress the scenario was exerting on his youngsters after almost six years of battling for custody, Ben McGee gave up, Cherubino stated. “He just couldn’t take what the church was doing to his children — and to him,” she stated.
Shana Muse additionally discovered the value of making an attempt to extract kids from the church. She turned mired in a nasty custody battle with sect leaders when she tried to exit in 2002 along with her 4 kids, ranging in age from eight to 15.
“If you’re thinking about leaving, be prepared,” she stated. “They will do everything to personally discredit you and show judges and the public the kids are better off with a church family.”
Muse was persuaded to affix Word of Faith by her two sisters, who stated their church might badist her: She had a drug downside and was dealing with authorized issues in Florida for writing unhealthy checks.
After shifting to Spindale, Muse labored for a enterprise owned by Kent Covington, an influential church minister. But she stated she reached a breaking level when she noticed her kids and others being screamed at and crushed within the identify of God.
After telling Covington she deliberate to return to Florida with the youngsters, she arrived residence from work that September 2002 night time to search out her home empty, Muse stated. She promptly known as the Rutherford County sheriff’s workplace to report that the children had been kidnapped.
When deputies arrived, they spoke to church leaders. And a lot to Muse’s shock, she stated, her sister Suzanne Cooper lied to deputies. “She said I had been abusing my children and that they actually had custody of my children,” Muse stated.
Suzanne Cooper, who left the church in 2014, advised the AP that she was pressured by Whaley and different ministers to lie, including tearfully, “I live with that guilt every day.”
Through her lawyer, Whaley denied ever urgent anybody to lie.
Instead of permitting Muse to take her youngsters, the sheriff’s workplace alerted the social providers division. Muse stated Covington and his spouse, Brooke, agreed to her request that the youngsters stick with them till the scenario may very well be resolved. She was granted permission to take the children after a couple of days, however they already had been turned in opposition to her and threw “a major fit” to remain, she stated.
Muse stated she then decided that torments her nonetheless: Because she felt she had no different choice, she requested the Covingtons if her kids might stay with them for a month or two whereas she straightened out her life. The couple agreed, however had Muse signal what she stated she thought was a brief custody settlement.
“I did not read the document closely. I trusted them,” she stated, including that she additionally was intimidated in a room crammed with Word of Faith leaders. The doc stated Muse “gives and conveys all my rights and custody and control” to the Covingtons.
Muse stated she returned to Spindale in December 2002 after a stint at a clinic specializing in “cult-deprogramming,” however that the Covingtons refused at hand over her kids. So she known as social providers and stated the youngsters — and others inside Word of Faith — had been being abused, triggering each an investigation into the church and a authorized battle for her youngsters.
During custody hearings in 2003, church members — together with Suzanne Cooper and one other sister — painted Muse as an abusive mom. Muse, in flip, detailed how kids had been mistreated contained in the church.
After the testimony concluded, Judge Randy Pool stated he discovered “clear and convincing evidence the children were abused and neglected by isolation, excessive corporal punishment and blasting while at WOFF church” they usually had been positioned in foster care. But the case was not over.
The Covingtons and the church spent hundreds of serving to Muse’s two teenage ladies efficiently file for emancipation, which enabled them to shortly transfer again into the couple’s home. And the boys additionally left a foster residence and moved again after Pool’s ruling was overturned by an appeals courtroom over a jurisdictional concern.
The Covingtons didn’t reply to a request for remark left at Kent Covington’s enterprise.
Three of Muse’s 4 kids have since left the church, they usually advised the AP that they had been bodily and verbally abused by the Covingtons and different ministers.
“I can’t tell you how many times I was beaten, how many times I had black eyes or was so physically hurt I couldn’t move,” Patrick Covington stated.
They additionally stated they had been coerced by Whaley into mendacity about their mom. “We were told to tell social workers that she beat us,” daughter Rachael Bryant stated.
Sitting in the lounge of her Charlotte residence, Bryant held her mom’s hand as she apologized. “What we did was wrong,” she stated.
Muse clutched her daughter’s fingers as she spoke phrases of forgiveness. And she fought tears as she expressed her fears for the son remaining within the church.
“I’m speaking out for him and all the others,” she stated. “Something has to be done.”
THE FOSTER CHILDREN
When Donna Whitworth confirmed up for a medical appointment in 2011, she recollects the nurse practitioner commenting on how wholesome the foster kids who accompanied her seemed. Within weeks, Whitworth stated, she acquired a name from a social employee informing her potential household had been discovered for 2 of the children.
The nurse? Anne Brock, a longtime Word of Faith member. The household? Church members Werner and Hetty Trachsel. The kids? The two boys that Cleveland County courtroom advocate Nancy Burnette in the end couldn’t honor her promise to.
The Trachsels had been within the strategy of changing into foster dad and mom however, as a substitute of making use of regionally, they went to the neighboring county the place church member Lori Cornelius was a social employee, in line with paperwork obtained by AP.
Under North Carolina regulation, social staff should give foster dad and mom ample discover earlier than eradicating a baby from a foster residence “to prepare the child and to prepare themselves for a significant event in their lives.” But regardless of a couple of in a single day visits with the Trachsels, Whitworth stated every thing appeared rushed.
She acquired a name sooner or later from social providers telling her to satisfy the couple in a grocery retailer car parking zone at hand over the children, Whitworth stated. No social employee was current, she stated, and the Trachsels left little time for goodbyes.
“I sat in that parking lot for over an hour and cried. I knew in my gut something wasn’t right,” Whitworth stated.
Burnette recalled many purple flags: She stated the Trachsels weren’t but formally licensed as foster dad and mom when the boys had been allowed to maneuver in. The youngsters weren’t receiving the right remedy and regressed emotionally. And the couple gave conflicting accounts of how they’d increase the boys.
After her intimidating expertise on the church service, Burnette stated she and her supervisor determined to take away the boys from the Trachsel residence. Instead, Burnette stated, she was taken off their case.
In a dialog surreptitiously recorded by a former church member and obtained by the AP, Whaley stated she had known as Burnette’s supervisor to complain about her, noting that the supervisor “was as precious as can be … she threw her totally off the case.”
Eight former members stated they’d seen the 2 boys being blasted or mistreated by church members. Asked by the AP if the boys had ever been abused, Werner Traschel responded, “Never. Never, never, never.” He stated he had been licensed as a foster mother or father when the boys moved in and known as them “the most happy children.”
Burnette’s former supervisor, Dawn Stover, declined remark, citing confidentiality legal guidelines governing foster kids.
An lawyer for the Cleveland County social providers division responded to questions despatched to director Karen Pritchard by saying state regulation prohibited the company from discussing particular person circumstances.
For church member Tim Cornelius, acquiring a foster baby additionally was a snap. He, too, went to neighboring Cleveland County, the place his sister-in-law Lori was a social employee, and stated she gave him recommendation on methods to “game the system.”
Cornelius and his spouse turned foster dad and mom to a 6-month-old boy. Under North Carolina rules, foster dad and mom are mandated to supply a baby with protected residence, however Cornelius stated he noticed his son abused by others — blasted, and violently shaken — and knew it might solely worsen.
“I knew he was going to get older and they were going to beat him up. So I started trying to step up,'” Cornelius stated.
For pushing again, he stated, he was berated and crushed himself. Fed up, he left each his spouse and Word of Faith in 2013 after 20 years within the church.
After guilt set in, Cornelius stated he advised a social employee that he was scared for the boy’s security because of the church’s violent practices. Per week later, he stated, he was contacted by a social providers lawyer who thanked him for being candid. But he stated he by no means heard from the lawyer once more, and the boy remained together with his ex-wife.
“In retrospect, I regret I didn’t do more to protect him. But at the time, I was afraid. I believed that if you defied Jane, you would become a target and you would go to hell,” Cornelius stated. “It still haunts me.”
Lori Cornelius left her social providers place earlier this yr after the AP quoted former church members who stated she participated in teaching periods designed to avoid investigators trying into abuse allegations.
She denied that she helped her brother-in-law receive a foster baby and advised the AP that she had by no means witnessed any abuse at Word of Faith. “Never would allow a child to be abused or be anywhere where a child was being abused,” she stated.
A LIFELONG TOLL
When he was 13, Brent Johnston stated, Jane Whaley ripped his household aside: She decreed that he must be taken from his mom and dwell as a substitute with Bill and Jennifer Creason, a church couple with no kids of their very own.
Johnston grew up in Word of Faith. Over the years, his mom had struggled with private issues and the church’s strict methods, breaking with the sect at instances, solely to return when she ran out of choices.
After Johnston and his youthful brother went to dwell with the Creasons in 2008, his mom left the church for good and Whaley advised him she had “turned my mom over to Satan,” he recalled.
Jennifer Creason had been Johnston’s principal on the church’s Ok-12 college and he was terrified on the prospect of residing with the couple, who he described as each emotionally and bodily abusive.
In 2011, Johnston stated, he was accused of “unclean” ideas and locked up for greater than 5 months within the Lower Building, a cramped, four-room construction reserved for these deemed the worst sinners.
If he needed out, he stated, Whaley insisted he begin calling the Creasons “mom and dad.”
“Basically, we were their way to have a family, but taking someone else’s kids away is not the right way to do it,” he stated.
The Creasons didn’t reply to the AP’s request for remark.
Johnston stated Whaley known as a gathering of prime ministers and legal professionals during which he was pressured to inform his mom he needed to stick with the Creasons.
His youthful brother stated he needed to be adopted by the couple, Johnston recalled. Under intense stress, he stated his mom — who declined to be interviewed — “was basically forced to sign over her rights” to the boy. Court paperwork present the Creasons filed paperwork to undertake Johnston’s brother on May 29, 2012.
Johnston was advised to alter his final identify to Creason, which he did, in a course of finalized in July 2015. But after leaving the church early the subsequent yr, he informally began utilizing Johnston once more.
Johnston hasn’t had a relationship together with his brother since fleeing Word of Faith. Sometimes, he drives by the Creasons’ home, hoping to catch a glimpse of his sibling. But he would not dare linger.
“The last time I saw him, he was playing basketball outside,” Johnston stated.
He allowed himself a fleeting hope that sometime, by some means, they’d be a household once more. Then he drove away.
AP researcher Rhonda Shafner and AP reporter Allen Breed contributed to this report.
The AP National Investigative Team will be reached at [email protected]
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