Spindale -- A federal lawsuit filed by the Word of Faith Fellowship against the county's social service agency has been settled with $305,000 going to WOFF and prior records of child abuse investigations being expunged from the record.
A WOFF attorney called the ruling vindication, while the Rutherford County Department of Social Services officials said the settlement avoided hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal expenses as they denied any wrongdoing.
The originating lawsuit sought over $2 million and multiple items of injunctive relief regarding DSS investigations of WOFF.
During the past 10 years -- and particularly in 2002 and 2003 -- DSS investigated claims of child abuse against the controversial Spindale-based organization.
WOFF contended that the investigations were unwarranted and were a violation of the free exercise of its religion.
"The settlement, in our view, completely vindicates the position of the Word of Faith Fellowship and its members in the civil rights lawsuit," said WOFF attorney David Goldstein of New York-based Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky & Lieberman. "It is our view that if you take this settlement together with the Court of Appeals victory that took place regarding the Almanie/Muse children that it is our belief that this will put an end to the almost decade-long illegal and unconstitutional harassment and discrimination by DSS against the Word of Faith Fellowship and its members."
The four children of Shana Muse, a former WOFF member, have been at the center of a number of legal proceedings in recent years.
Muse's two older daughters, Sarah and Rachael Almanie, were awarded emancipation in August 2004 and are considered legal adults.
The two boys were recently returned to the custody of WOFF ministers Kent and Brooke Covington after an Oct. 2003 court ruling placing all four children in DSS custody was overturned on appeal.
DSS held a special board meeting Wednesday to release its official public statement after discussing the settlement in closed session at its July 20 meeting.
"The lawsuit has consumed many hours of staff time and extensive financial resources on the part of both parties; and we chose to resolve the disputes between us without the expense of further litigation," the DSS release states. "This settlement amount is minimal in comparison to the litigation expenses incurred by the Plaintiffs. The settlement is not an admission of liability or wrongdoing on the part of this department but a compromise of the disputed issues between the parties."
The DSS statement states that the total legal bills for WOFF were more than $1 million while DSS's expenses, covered by an insurance policy, totaled nearly $170,000.
The county only had to pay the $5,000 deductible on its insurance policy, managed by Sedgwick Claims Management Services, for the agency.
The Charlotte-based legal firm of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice were hired through the insurers to represent the county, with Scott MacLatchie handling most of the work.
The DSS release says MacClatchie and others advised DSS that it "has acted appropriately and had a strong defense."
The settlement is 29 pages long and spells out what the parties agreed upon as well as a number of protocols DSS must now go through to investigate any future claims of child abuse or neglect.
Goldstein highlighted a paragraph of the settlement regarding the WOFF religious practices which states:
"Defendants hereby recognize and acknowledge that Plantiff's practices of strong prayer (or 'blasting' prayer) and discipleship ... are religious practices, and that the individual Plaintiffs and other members of the Word of Faith religion have the right to raise their minor children in the Word of Faith religious tradition free from unwarranted government intrusion, including the right to have their children participate in the religious practices of strong prayer and discipleship."
The new protocol adds two layers of review to DSS's current two-step process when child abuse claims come into the office.
DSS Director John Carroll said Wednesday he didn't consider the new protocol to be burdensome. The steps involve a formal review by both Program Director Karen Adams and Carroll who must each agree in writing to move forward with an investigation into child abuse claims at WOFF.
It creates additional hurdles to clear for those claiming child abuse and requires notification of attorneys if certain timeframes are exceeded.
For allegation of blasting being abuse, for example, additional questions would have to be asked.
"It is really information for that type of allegation that we would ask anyway so that is not something which is burdensome," said Carroll.
Goldstein saw the protocol as critical.
"We believe this protocol together with other restrictions in the agreement will put an end to any future investigations against WFF members based on their religious beliefs and practices and notably the federal court retains jurisdiction to enforce compliance with the terms of the agreement," he said. "The essence of the agreement is that my clients are not going to see any more of what they saw over the past decade."
The agreement prohibits DSS staff members Lynn Hoppes and Melanie Taylor from working on any future cases involving WOFF.
The agreement also closes and expunges from the state database all prior cases of child abuse involving the WOFF religious practices, including cases back to 1995.
DSS has multiple restrictions on where and how it speaks with WOFF members and their children.
DSS is also prohibited from referring any current and former WOFF members to the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center or Mary Alice Chrnalogar or similar entities or persons considered to be cult deprogrammers.
The Plaintiffs in the case were Steven and Cynthia Cordes, Ricky and Suzanne Cooper, Jennifer Moore, David and Jayne Caulder, Virginia Cable, Denise Worley, Patricia Dolan, Jason and Tanja Gross, Marcia Whitbeck, Gilberto Carmona, Jay and Susan Plummer, Cody Ryan Hawkins, Joveille Clark and all the minor children of the plaintiffs.