Originally Published: November 14, 2017 6:01 a.m.
SPINDALE, North Carolina (AP) — As a court-appointed advocate for two foster boys, it was Nancy Burnette's job to ensure they were in good hands. So as part of her casework, she visited Word of Faith Fellowship, the evangelical church they attended with the couple seeking to adopt them.
What happened next haunts her: In the middle of the service, the chanting and singing suddenly stopped, Burnette said, and the fiery pastor pointed at Burnette, accusing her of being "wicked." ''You are here to cause strife!" she recalled Jane Whaley shouting, as she sensed congregants begin to converge upon her. "You don't think these kids are supposed to be here!"
Terrified, Burnette left, but not before promising the boys, ages 4 and almost 2, that she would return — a promise she ultimately could not keep.
"What I didn't know was how hard Word of Faith would fight — and the tactics they would use — to keep the kids," Burnette told The Associated Press.
That was not the only time Word of Faith Fellowship's leaders and members have used positions of authority, intimidation or deception to bring children into the church's folds or keep them from leaving — often at Whaley's behest, according to dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of court records, police reports and social services documents obtained by the AP.
As a result, children have been introduced to sometimes violent church practices that run counter to the North Carolina laws designed to protect them, the AP found.
The state promotes "family preservation," designed to prevent the "unnecessary placement of children away from their families." But the AP found that some young congregants have been separated from their parents for up to a decade — bounced from family to family — as leaders strive to keep them in the church.
In addition, three single mothers told the AP that a longtime Word of Faith Fellowship member who was a county court clerk bypassed the foster system and eventually won permanent custody of their children, even though a judge called the clerk's conduct inappropriate. Two of the mothers said the clerk approached them and offered to temporarily keep the children while they served their jail time.
The AP interviewed a dozen former congregants who said they had personally witnessed the three children living with the clerk being subjected to intense screaming sessions called "blasting" aimed at casting out demons, or being held down, shaken or beaten.
Even as she battled desperately for her young son, one of the three women had told a judge that, if she could not have him, the boy would be better off in foster care due to 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 said. "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 leadership, Word of Faith Fellowship has grown to about 750 congregants in North Carolina and a total of nearly 2,000 members in its churches in Brazil and Ghana and through affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries.
As part of an ongoing investigation into the church, the AP already has cited dozens of former members as saying congregants were regularly punched and choked in an effort to "purify" sinners. Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers, they said — even crying babies, who were vigorously shaken and sometimes smacked to banish devils.
Now, the AP has uncovered numerous instances in which Word of Faith leaders turned children against their parents, with the children then taken in or adopted by other church families. Ex-members told the AP of at least two dozen such cases, which they attributed to the church trying to keep minors from leaving the congregation.
One former congregant, for example, said Whaley pressured her into lying about her sister being abusive when the woman wanted to depart with her four children, leading to a protracted custody battle that resulted in the kids living with a prominent minister.
Another former follower told the AP he was separated from his biological family as a teenager and locked up for months until he began referring to another church couple as "mom and dad."
In every case, children's lives were under the total control of Whaley and the leaders enforcing her rules. They were educated in the church school and largely isolated from the outside world, and prohibited from watching television or celebrating their birthdays or Christmas. Any violations could be met with physical or verbal punishment.
The church has a song: "Happy, happy, happy, happy are the children whose God is the Lord." It serves as a cue for young congregants to put on a happy face, no matter 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," said John Huddle, whose relationship with his kids 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 facing a jail sentence, Keela Blanton said she thought her prayers had been answered when a friendly court clerk offered to care for the child until she was back on her feet.
Blanton was facing about eight months behind bars for various charges, including attempting to obtain controlled substances by fraud, when Laura Bridges — a Word of Faith member who was then a Rutherford County clerk — approached her, she said. Afraid her son would end up in permanent state care, she agreed.
In July 2008, when the boy was 5 days old, Blanton signed an agreement granting Bridges temporary guardianship until her release from jail, when she would resume "full responsibility for my child," according to a document obtained by the AP.
When she got out two months later, Blanton said Bridges and her husband told her that they now loved the boy and wanted to help care for him. He spent much of his time with the couple, which Blanton said seemed like a blessing until he began seeming anxious and came home with bruises on his face.
In August 2012, Blanton refused to send the boy back to the Bridges and filed child abuse reports with the sheriff's office and social services authorities.
A clinical assessment conducted by a counselor Blanton hired said the then 4-year-old boy showed "signs of being coerced and brainwashed." He "became hysterical" about missing church services and seemed afraid of being "dealt with" if he broke church rules, the report said.
The counselor noted that the boy wet his pants twice during the interview, and said Laura Bridges had instructed him to soil himself during visits with Blanton.
Videos of the boy obtained by the AP show him overwrought over seemingly minor things. "They don't wear blue jeans!" he sobbed in one video, apparently afraid to return to the Bridges in clothes forbidden by the church.
"I felt my son was being brainwashed," Blanton told a judge during an emergency custody hearing, according to a recording of the proceedings.
A social worker testified that Blanton was a fit mother with a tidy, "safe" home and noted that she had custody of her other children — two older boys and a younger daughter. But the Bridges described Blanton as a criminal who lived with a drug dealer in a filthy house and rarely asked to see the boy.
The judge awarded the Bridges primary custody, saying Blanton had allowed her son to largely live with the couple for four years and that it would be traumatic to remove him. But he also told the couple's attorney, "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 said she would rather the child be in foster care than with the Bridges, but the judge said he had no grounds to place him in the state's hands.
Throughout the court battle, Blanton said members of the church followed her and took pictures of her family, and that the pressure finally pushed her over the edge. In October 2012, she attempted suicide and was admitted for psychiatric care for several days, according to court records.
In February 2014, another judge gave sole custody to the Bridges, citing Blanton's "prolonged failure to request, establish and exercise regular contact with the child." He also noted that she had no stable employment, continued to break the law with offenses such as driving with a suspended license, and moved 19 times over the course of five years.
Blanton said the Bridges lied about how frequently she visited the boy and often prevented her from seeing him. She now has not seen her son in five years and sobbed when she told him via the AP, "Momma didn't walk away. I love you with all my heart — everything that's in me."
In a statement to the AP, Bridges said she met Blanton at the clerk's office but then developed a friendship with her. She took the boy in at Blanton's request, she wrote, adding, "She was in a difficult time and I wanted to help."
In awarding full custody to the Bridges, however, the judge noted 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 first time Bridges used her position to procure a child from a troubled woman, another young mother told the AP.
The woman said she was facing drug charges in 2005 when Bridges approached her and offered to care for her daughter, who was not yet a year old. When the woman's three children were taken away after what she blamed on a failed drug test, the Bridges kept the youngest. The woman — who asked that her name not be used because she feared losing access to her daughter for speaking out — even was ordered to pay child support to the couple, court records show.
And a third young woman with a drug problem and a warrant for her arrest said Bridges called her "out of nowhere" in 2008, identified herself as court employee and offered to take her child when he was born.
Denikka Simpson said in written messages to the AP that she was then in no position to care for the child, but felt manipulated into signing adoption paperwork.
"I was told I could get him back," said Simpson, who has a history of drug-related charges and other offenses. But when she asked for the boy, she said the Bridges refused, telling her that he would get in touch with her someday if he chose to do so. She has not seen him since he was 6 weeks old, she said.
Bridges also denied approaching the other two women and said they, too, came to her seeking help caring for their children.
"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 also insisted the children had never been mistreated, writing, "Anyone who says otherwise is not being truthful."
Benjamin Cooper, one of the ex-members who told the AP they witnessed the children living with the Bridges being abused, said the three women might not have been ideal mothers but that their kids would have been better off in 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," said 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, money and influence — in custody, foster-care and other cases involving children, the AP found.
Even if it meant lying, former members said, ministry leaders have regularly attacked parents who launched custody battles for their kids when they broke with the church, staunchly taking the side of the remaining parent.
Ex-follower Natasha Cherubino witnessed that firsthand when her family was involved in a bitter custody fight in 2000.
A judge awarded joint custody of Cherubino's three young step-siblings to their divorcing parents, Ben and Pamela McGee, despite noting in his ruling that Word of Faith had tried to exercise "complete control" over the children and that he believed the church's practices hurt kids. The judge said the children could not be paddled or blasted — restrictions that Cherubino and other former followers said church leaders flouted.
Cherubino said the leaders coerced the children into throwing fits before weekend visits with their father, who had broken with the church. "And when the children returned, they were "interrogated about what they did at their father's house," she said.
Finally, worried about the stress the situation was exerting on his kids after nearly six years of battling for custody, Ben McGee gave up, Cherubino said. "He just couldn't take what the church was doing to his children — and to him," she said.
Shana Muse also learned the price of trying to extract children from the church. She became mired in a nasty custody battle with sect leaders when she tried to exit in 2002 with her four children, ranging in age from 8 to 15.
"If you're thinking about leaving, be prepared," she said. "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 join Word of Faith by her two sisters, who said their church could help her: She had a drug problem and was facing legal problems in Florida for writing bad checks.
After moving to Spindale, Muse worked for a business owned by Kent Covington, an influential church minister. But she said she reached a breaking point when she saw her children and others being screamed at and beaten in the name of God.
After telling Covington she planned to return to Florida with the children, she arrived home from work that September 2002 night to find her house empty, Muse said. She promptly called the Rutherford County sheriff's office to report that the kids had been kidnapped.
When deputies arrived, they spoke to church leaders. And much to Muse's shock, she said, 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 said.
Suzanne Cooper, who left the church in 2014, told the AP that she was pressured by Whaley and other ministers to lie, adding tearfully, "I live with that guilt every day."
Through her attorney, Whaley denied ever pressing anyone to lie.
Instead of allowing Muse to take her kids, the sheriff's office alerted the social services department. Muse said Covington and his wife, Brooke, agreed to her request that the children stay with them until the situation could be resolved. She was granted permission to take the kids after a few days, but they already had been turned against her and threw "a major fit" to stay, she said.
Muse said she then made a decision that torments her still: Because she felt she had no other option, she asked the Covingtons if her children could remain with them for a month or two while she straightened out her life. The couple agreed, but had Muse sign what she said she thought was a temporary custody agreement.
"I did not read the document closely. I trusted them," she said, adding that she also was intimidated in a room filled with Word of Faith leaders. The document said Muse "gives and conveys all my rights and custody and control" to the Covingtons.
Muse said she returned to Spindale in December 2002 after a stint at a clinic specializing in "cult-deprogramming," but that the Covingtons refused to hand over her children. So she called social services and said the children — and others inside Word of Faith — were being abused, triggering both an investigation into the church and a legal battle for her kids.
During custody hearings in 2003, church members — including Suzanne Cooper and another sister — painted Muse as an abusive mother. Muse, in turn, detailed how children were mistreated inside the church.
After the testimony concluded, Judge Randy Pool said he found "clear and convincing evidence the children were abused and neglected by isolation, excessive corporal punishment and blasting while at WOFF church" and they were placed in foster care. But the case was not over.
The Covingtons and the church spent thousands of dollars helping Muse's two teenage girls successfully file for emancipation, which enabled them to quickly move back into the couple's house. And the boys also left a foster home and moved back after Pool's ruling was overturned by an appeals court over a jurisdictional issue.
The Covingtons did not respond to a request for comment left at Kent Covington's business.
Three of Muse's four children have since left the church, and they told the AP that they were physically and verbally abused by the Covingtons and other 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 said.
They also said they were coerced by Whaley into lying about their mother. "We were told to tell social workers that she beat us," daughter Rachael Bryant said.
Sitting in the living room of her Charlotte home, Bryant held her mother's hand as she apologized. "What we did was wrong," she said.
Muse clutched her daughter's fingers as she spoke words of forgiveness. And she fought tears as she expressed her fears for the son remaining in the church.
"I'm speaking out for him and all the others," she said. "Something has to be done."
THE FOSTER CHILDREN
When Donna Whitworth showed up for a medical appointment in 2011, she recalls the nurse practitioner commenting on how healthy the foster children who accompanied her looked. Within weeks, Whitworth said, she got a call from a social worker informing her that a potential family had been found for two of the kids.
The nurse? Anne Brock, a longtime Word of Faith member. The family? Church members Werner and Hetty Trachsel. The children? The two boys that Cleveland County court advocate Nancy Burnette ultimately could not honor her promise to.
The Trachsels had been in the process of becoming foster parents but, instead of applying locally, they went to the neighboring county where church member Lori Cornelius was a social worker, according to documents obtained by AP.
Under North Carolina law, social workers must give foster parents adequate notice before removing a child from a foster home "to prepare the child and to prepare themselves for a significant event in their lives." But despite a few overnight visits with the Trachsels, Whitworth said everything seemed rushed.
She got a call one day from social services telling her to meet the couple in a grocery store parking lot to hand over the kids, Whitworth said. No social worker was present, she said, 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 said.
Burnette recalled many red flags: She said the Trachsels were not yet officially certified as foster parents when the boys were allowed to move in. The kids were not receiving the proper therapy and regressed emotionally. And the couple gave conflicting accounts of how they would raise the boys.
After her intimidating experience at the church service, Burnette said she and her supervisor decided to remove the boys from the Trachsel home. Instead, Burnette said, she was taken off their case.
In a conversation surreptitiously recorded by a former church member and obtained by the AP, Whaley said she had called 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 said they had seen the two 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 said he had been certified as a foster parent when the boys moved in and called them "the most happy children."
Burnette's former supervisor, Dawn Stover, declined comment, citing confidentiality laws governing foster children.
An attorney for the Cleveland County social services department responded to questions sent to director Karen Pritchard by saying state law prohibited the agency from discussing individual cases.
For church member Tim Cornelius, obtaining a foster child also was a snap. He, too, went to neighboring Cleveland County, where his sister-in-law Lori was a social worker, and said she gave him advice on how to "game the system."
Cornelius and his wife became foster parents to a 6-month-old boy. Under North Carolina regulations, foster parents are mandated to provide a child with safe home, but Cornelius said he saw his son abused by others — blasted, and violently shaken — and knew it would only get worse.
"I knew he was going to get older and they were going to beat him up. So I started trying to step up,'" Cornelius said.
For pushing back, he said, he was berated and beaten himself. Fed up, he left both his wife and Word of Faith in 2013 after 20 years in the church.
After guilt set in, Cornelius said he told a social worker that he was scared for the boy's safety due to the church's violent practices. A week later, he said, he was contacted by a social services attorney who thanked him for being candid. But he said he never heard from the attorney again, and the boy remained 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 said. "It still haunts me."
Lori Cornelius left her social services position earlier this year after the AP quoted former church members who said she participated in coaching sessions designed to circumvent investigators looking into abuse allegations.
She denied that she helped her brother-in-law obtain a foster child and told the AP that she had never 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 said.
A LIFELONG TOLL
When he was 13, Brent Johnston said, Jane Whaley ripped his family apart: She decreed that he should be taken from his mother and live instead with Bill and Jennifer Creason, a church couple with no children of their own.
Johnston grew up in Word of Faith. Over the years, his mother had struggled with personal problems and the church's strict ways, breaking with the sect at times, only to return when she ran out of options.
After Johnston and his younger brother went to live with the Creasons in 2008, his mother left the church for good and Whaley told him she had "turned my mom over to Satan," he recalled.
Jennifer Creason had been Johnston's principal at the church's K-12 school and he was terrified at the prospect of living with the couple, who he described as both emotionally and physically abusive.
In 2011, Johnston said, he was accused of "unclean" thoughts and locked up for more than five months in the Lower Building, a cramped, four-room structure reserved for those deemed the worst sinners.
If he wanted out, he said, Whaley insisted he start 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 said.
The Creasons did not respond to the AP's request for comment.
Johnston said Whaley called a meeting of top ministers and lawyers in which he was pressured to tell his mother he wanted to stay with the Creasons.
His younger brother said he wanted to be adopted by the couple, Johnston recalled. Under intense pressure, he said his mother — who declined to be interviewed — "was basically forced to sign over her rights" to the boy. Court documents show the Creasons filed paperwork to adopt Johnston's brother on May 29, 2012.
Johnston was told to change his last name to Creason, which he did, in a process finalized in July 2015. But after leaving the church early the next year, he informally started using Johnston again.
Johnston hasn't had a relationship with his brother since fleeing Word of Faith. Sometimes, he drives by the Creasons' house, hoping to catch a glimpse of his sibling. But he doesn't dare linger.
"The last time I saw him, he was playing basketball outside," Johnston said.
He allowed himself a fleeting hope that someday, somehow, they would be a family again. Then he drove away.
AP researcher Rhonda Shafner and AP reporter Allen Breed contributed to this report. The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at email@example.com