Rutherfordton -- A 6-year-old boy was removed from a home at The Word of Faith Fellowship on Tuesday after his father and stepmother petitioned a judge for custody.
It came nearly 12 hours after a judge ordered the sheriff to take the child into custody and deliver him to his stepmother.
The removal also came after an attorney representing the child's aunt, who is a member of Word of Faith Fellowship and had physical custody of the child, contacted a judge seeking an emergency stay of the judgment, but opted not to seek the order.
The boy is the nephew of Gene Worley of Forest City who is currently embroiled in a legal battle with his estranged wife Denise Worley over custody of their three children.
The boy had been residing with his aunt and uncle since February 2002 when his father, Harold Keith Worley, was sent to prison on driving while impaired charges.
In January, the boy's aunt and uncle separated after a domestic violence incident. Denise Worley, her own three children and her nep-hew moved into a house at the Word of Faith Fellow-ship's compound off Old Flynn Road in Spindale.
During custody proceedings last month regarding the status of Gene and Denise Worley's three children, the boy's living arrangements were not a part of the litigation.
On Monday, the boy's stepmother, Kim Worley of Florida, filed a complaint in Rutherford County seeking custody. She is represented by attorney Peter E. Lane of Rutherfordton.
Her complaint alleges that "it is not in the child's best interests that he remain in the physical custody of either Curtis Gene Worley or Denise Melton Worley because neither of those persons have legal custody of the named juvenile and would be unable to consent to any medical attention which would become necessary for the child."
In addition, the suit states that neither the stepmother nor natural father "desires" that the boy "be exposed to the doctrines and discipline of Word of Faith Fellowship or associated with its leaders and membership."
The father, who is serving a sentence for habitual DWI, signed a statement indicating he consented to his wife's intentions to take legal custody of the child.
Chief District Court Judge Robert S. Cilley signed a judgment in the case on Tuesday morning ordering the sheriff to take the child and deliver him to Kim Worley.
In the judgment, Cilley cites a 2000 custody case involving WOFF in which a judge found the church creates an environment that "has an adverse effect on the health, safety and welfare of children."
After the papers were delivered to the Sheriff's Department, Chief Deputy C. Philip Byers said his office contacted an official at the Word of Faith Fellowship seeking the whereabouts of the child and was told that he had been taken on a field trip to the zoo in Columbia, S.C., and promised the boy would be turned over no later than 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Sometime after 5 p.m., Garland Byers, an attorney representing the boy's aunt Denise Worley contacted District Court Judge Laura "Suzy" Bridges at home seeking an emergency stay until a hearing could be held to provide an opportunity for his client, who has physical custody of the child, to be heard on the matter.
Denise Worley and Gene Worley had not been served with notice of the original action.
Bridges said that "on further investigation (Byers) decided not to pursue an order because there was an attorney on the other side who would object to the order."
A deputy had already made at least one trip to Denise Worley's house on Old Flynn Road but could find no one at home.
After 9 p.m., Byers said the Sheriff's Department again made contact with Ray Farmer, an associate minister at the WOFF, asking for the boy to be handed over.
A deputy drove back to the house where he was given the boy. The deputy then delivered the boy to his stepmother at Lane's office in Rutherfordton around 10 p.m.
Kim Worley said earlier in the day that she was making plans for her stepson.
"I want to get my son, get him counseling first and just let him be a normal 6-year-old," she said.
Kim Worley and Ida Lee Worley, the boy's father's sister, said they stayed up until 1 a.m. Tuesday morning blowing up balloons and making a cake that said, "Welcome Home."
The WOFF has been the focus of increasing scrutiny since December when a Florida woman, who is a former member of the church, mounted efforts to retake her four minor children from a WOFF minister and his wife.
That custody case is still pending in the courts.
Meanwhile, the Department of Social Services has been asked by the District Attorney to conduct an investigation into the welfare of those children. That investigation is being carried out by authorities in Lincoln County and is ongoing.
The county Department of Social Services is also believed to be investigating several allegations of abuse or neglect of children in the church-run day care.
In addition, state regulators launched a probe earlier this year to determine whether the church is in fact operating a day care and if so why it has never been registered or regulated by state authorities.
And since early February, two former WOFF members have filed civil lawsuits against the church and several key leaders including senior pastor Jane Whaley. The former members allege that they were subjected to false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other claims. One former member alleges she suffered injuries as a result of spanking sessions at WOFF which have left her unable to bear children. Lane is also representing the two plaintiffs in those cases.
Asked for a comment about the Worley case on Tuesday, Lane said, "It's been interesting."
WOFF, formed more than two decades ago, has been in the public spotlight for nearly eight years over child custody cases and its unorthodox practices.
Over the past few years, many former members have stepped forward to speak out against those alleged practices, which include "blasting" prayers and allegations of excessive corporal punishment.
The church has maintained it is the subject of lies and persecution.
In 1995, allegations of those practices prompted District Attorney Jeff Hunt to order an SBI investigation of the church.
The investigation yielded no charges, although DA Hunt said that the church's "unorthodox practices seem to lend themselves to abuses."