In an unprecedented move, North Carolina's state child welfare agency will participate in reviewing every new allegation of abuse and neglect involving a controversial church that has been the focus of an Associated Press investigation exposing years of physical and emotional mistreatment of congregants, including children.
Under North Carolina's child welfare system, county agencies are responsible for investigating abuse allegations. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services provides oversight and training, but generally does not get involved in a county agency's daily operations.
The state would not say what prompted the move, but it follows a series of AP stories that have cited dozens of former Word of Faith Fellowship members who say congregants are regularly beaten to "purify" sinners. Founded in 1979, the evangelical sect has grown to about 750 congregants in North Carolina and a total of nearly 2,000 other followers worldwide.
As part of a 2005 settlement of a federal lawsuit filed by Word of Faith against the Rutherford County Department of Social Services claiming religious persecution, investigators labor under a series of restrictions when looking into allegations of abuse within the sect.
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The settlement placed limitations on what can trigger an investigation, including guaranteeing that inquiries no longer could be based solely on objections to such core practices as "blasting," when congregants surround a church member and shriek, sometimes for hours, to expel demons. Dozens of former members have told the AP that such sessions often lead to slapping, punching and choking.
The current administration of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said it first learned of the agreement in February, the same month AP published its initial story on Word of Faith and outlined the settlement. Last month, the AP reported that the state agency had opposed the agreement at the time, quoting from a January 2005 email.
John Carroll, the Rutherford County social services director, has insisted he had the state's backing in signing the agreement but has not provided any documentation.
On Nov. 15, the AP ran a story in which former Word of Faith members demanded Carroll's resignation for signing the agreement. The following day, the state agency informed Carroll in writing that it would begin reviewing cases involving the church.
A spokeswoman for the state agency, Kelly Haight, told the AP that the department will provide "support and assistance" in investigating cases involving the sect and has the authority to intervene. She acknowledged that the state's move to review every abuse allegation involving an organization like the church was unprecedented.
The state will review not only the outcomes of church-related investigations but also complaints that are "screened out" and not acted upon, the agency's letter to Carroll said.
Carroll said he supports the state's involvement and the "joint endeavor will continue to ensure the safety and well-being of children in Rutherford County."
Noell Tin, the attorney for Word of Faith leader Jane Whaley, said the church had no comment.
Several former sect members told the AP that Carroll's department has cited the 2005 settlement in declining to act on child abuse allegations or has given Word of Faith leaders notice of investigations. Carroll did not respond to questions about those claims.
Danielle Cordes, whose family was part of the 2003 lawsuit that led to the agreement, said child abuse investigations were derailed because most congregants were coached on what to say to social workers and were too afraid to tell the truth.
Cordes, who left the church in 2013 and is now 24, said she was one of the few children to speak up about being beaten because she was interviewed by social workers in a car, where she was assured that church leaders couldn't hear or record the conversations.
The 2005 agreement now bans workers from interviewing children in vehicles, however.
Sarah Anderson, who recently broke with Word of Faith, said she complained to the Rutherford County agency in August that her son was being abused inside the church and was told Carroll would need to approve opening a case because of the settlement.
An investigation was opened, Anderson said, but social workers told her the agency would give the sect notice of the inquiry and called only one of three potential witnesses she provided before closing the case.
"Meanwhile, my son is at risk and no one wants to do a thing about it," she said. "It's just wrong."
Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi.