SPINDALE, North Carolina — 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. ”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 has used positions of authority and intimidation 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.
A lawyer for Whaley, Noell Tin, disputed the accounts. “The notion that church members separate children from their parents at Ms. Whaley's urging is preposterous,” he said.
Three single mothers told the AP that a longtime church member who was a Rutherford County court clerk bypassed the foster system and eventually won custody of their children, even though a judge called her 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 witnessed the three children living with the clerk being subjected to intense screaming sessions called “blasting” aimed at casting out demons, or being shaken or beaten.
Even as she desperately battled 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.
The clerk denied using her position to obtain the children.
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 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 — even crying babies, they said.
Now, the AP has uncovered numerous instances in which Word of Faith leaders steadily turned children against their parents, with the children then taken in or adopted by other church families. Ex-members cited at least two dozen such cases.
“If you're thinking about leaving, be prepared,” said Shana Muse, who unsuccessfully battled sect leaders for custody when she tried to exit in 2002 with her four kids. “They will do everything to personally discredit you and show judges and the public the kids are better off with a church family.”
Burnette said she knew nothing about the church when she was appointed the two boys’ guardian ad litem. But she recalled red flags, including the couple assigned to them not yet being officially certified as foster parents when the boys moved in.
After her frightening experience at the church service, Burnette said she and her supervisor decided to remove the boys from the home. Instead, Burnette said, she was taken off the 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, noting that the supervisor “threw her totally off the case.”
The supervisor declined comment, citing confidentiality laws, and the social services department said state law prohibited the agency from discussing individual cases.
Every child who belongs to Word of Faith is under the total control of Whaley and the leaders enforcing her rules. They are educated in the church school and largely isolated from the outside world, prohibited from watching television or celebrating birthdays or Christmas.
The church has a song: “Happy, happy, happy, happy are the children whose God is the Lord.” It serves as a cue to put on a happy face, no matter how young congregants are 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 lost contact with his kids when he broke with the church. “But the clothing can cover the bruises and the smiles can hide the hurt.”
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