18 Mar 2009

Home school custody battle turns on religious freedom

WRAL.com March 17, 2009
Judge Ned Mangum released his ruling Tuesday in a custody case that has become a cause célèbre in the homeschooling community, saying three children must go to public school next year.

Click here to read the court ruling (.pdf)

Mangum reiterated his oral judgment that the children of Thomas and Venessa Mills must be enrolled in public school in the 2009-10 school year. Venessa Mills is in the fourth year of home schooling her children, who are 10, 11 and 12 years old.

In an affidavit filed to request the change, Thomas Mills grants that he agreed the children would be home schooled, but temporarily. “I made it clear to (Venessa Mills) I objected to our children being removed from public schools,” he stated.

Thomas and Venessa Mills are in the process of divorcing. Thomas Mills cites Venessa’s involvement with the Sound Doctrine Church for their split. “She became unrecognizable as the person I married, and, in the name of her religion, she distanced herself from me,” his affidavit said.

He admitted that distance led him to stray from his marriage. He admitted to an affair. “Venessa Mills expressed appropriate concern for his transgressions,” the court order stated.

Venessa Mills asked the court to order that her husband have no decision-making authority related to the children’s education or religion.

The majority of the testimony supporting Mangum’s ruling dealt with Venessa Mills’ membership in the Sound Doctrine Church. According to the ruling, her mother, father and sister said under oath that “they are concerned about Venessa’s involvement with Sound Doctrine and are particularly concerned about the effect on the children.”

A woman described as Venessa’s “life-long friend” who served as her maid of honor at her 1994 wedding said, “Because of my friendship with Venessa Mills, it is extremely hard for me to make this affidavit, but I want to make the court aware of my concern for the Mills children.”

Since joining the Sound Doctrine Church, “Venessa has pushed her loved ones away,” Shanna Winkler-Hanson said. “From what I observed, it was apparent to me that Venessa has an extreme amount of control over the children,” her affidavit said.

Former members of Sound Doctrine Church also wrote affidavits questioning the practices of the church, calling them “very cult-like” and saying the church was “run by fear and manipulation.”

In his custody ruling, Mangum wrote that both parents should have the opportunity to influence the children’s religious development. “This court can not and will not infringe upon either party’s right to practice their own religion and expose their children to the same,” he wrote.

In addition to outlining the children’s physical custody and school arrangements, Mangum ordered that Venessa Mills undergo a mental health assessment.

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Judge says religious group is cult-like

The News & Observer - North Carolina
March 17, 2009

- N&O Staff Writer

Venessa Mills, the Wake County mother whose three children were ordered by a judge to attend public schools, is a member of a religious group that former members describe as cult-like, the judge said today in a written order. In addition, Mills has alienated the children from their father and other relatives, the judge wrote.

Wake District Court Judge Ned Mangum had ruled on March 6 that it would be in the best interests of Venessa Mills' children to go to public school this fall.

The ruling, in an ongoing divorce case between Venessa and husband Thomas Mills, has sparked national attention from conservative groups who maintain Mangum has overstepped his bounds.

Among other provisions, the written order says the parents will have joint custody of the children and that both parents can "practice their own religion and expose children to same."

Today's written order amplified Mangum's reasons for ordering the change in schooling. It goes into significant detail about the Washington State-based Sound Doctrine Church, describing Venessa Mills as a member.

The order quotes people named as former members of Sound Doctrine who describe the institution as abusive, controlling, practicing brainwashing and run by fear and manipulation.

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Child-Custody Deal Favors Escapee of Notorious Cult 'The Family' aka The Children of God

Court finds Exclusive Brethren's use of children as weapons in custody disputes is "psychologically cruel, unacceptable and abusive", but father still loses access


Get tough on home-schooling to weed out abuse, says UK review


  1. Court Forces Non Religious Mom to Get Therapy From Bible Thumping Counselor or Lose Custody of Sons

    When the counselor’s practices were put under scrutiny, several serious problems became apparent.

    By David Ferguson / Raw Story September 15, 2015

    An Albuquerque, New Mexico mother was ordered by a judge to attend sessions with a Christian counselor or face contempt of court charges and lose custody of her children. However, when the counselor’s practices were put under scrutiny, several serious problems became apparent.

    According to KRQE Channel 13, Holly Salzman sought court aid in coparenting her 11-year-old sons with their father, from whom she is divorced. The judge ordered a set of 10 sessions with counselor Mary Pepper.

    Salzman says that she assumed Pepper would be a regular couples and family counseling therapist, but “I walked into the session and the very first thing she said to me was, ‘I start my sessions by praying,’” Salzman said. “When I expressed my concerns that I didn’t pray she said, ‘well this is what I do’ and she proceeded to say a prayer out loud.”

    Because the sessions are court mandated, Salzman said, “You don’t have a choice. You do it or you’re held in contempt of court.”

    Salzman said that she feels that for the court to order her to a Christian counselor is a violation of the separation of church and state. After the first session, she contacted Family Court and left a message expressing her concerns. She never heard anything back.

    At her second session, Pepper opened with a prayer again.

    “We went back to court. I expressed concerns again about the religious overtones and they stated they hadn’t heard any problems concerning Mary Pepper with religion,” Salzman told Channel 13.

    She was, she says, so “offended and disgusted” that she stopped attending the courses altogether, at which point the court intervened and took away her sons.

    “It’s probably the worst thing I’ve ever been through in my life,” she said.

    continued below

  2. In order to regain custody of the boys, Salzman would have to complete the sessions. Channel 13 and Salzman worked together to covertly record three of the final sessions with Pepper.

    “The meaning in my life is to know love and serve God,” Pepper told Salzman in one of the recorded meetings. “If you want to explore how God was in your past, how God was in your life and not in your life… I know you don’t believe in God which is fine but I now at some points he was in your life in some way.”

    Pepper frequently handed Salzman religious tracts and gave Salzman a “homework” assignment, to write an essay titled “Who is God to me?”

    “Every session there was some sort of religion that was intertwined with the sessions,” said Salzman.

    When Channel 13 spoke to Pepper about blending religion with court-ordered sessions, she said, “I’m a private business that people decide to come through or not. The particular person there was interested in analyzing her belief system.”

    ACLU executive director Peter Simonson said, “No one should be put in a position where they are forced to accept training or therapy that violates their own religious beliefs and morals.”

    “We’ve got protections in our country under the Bill of Rights are intended to try and stop that,” Simonson said of Salzman’s experience. “On the face of it, it looks pretty problematic.”

    There are other issues with Pepper’s practices. She has been holding the sessions in rooms at the public library, but charging clients for the sessions, which is illegal.

    “She had actually explained to me that you need to be discrete about it because I’m not allowed to exchange money in the public library. So I had to kind of hide the money and then literally pass the money under the table,” Salzman said.

    When Channel 13 pressed Pepper about these red flags, she ended the interview.

    “I think that this interview needs to be ended,” Pepper said. “If you’d like to know more in private, I’d explain a lot about my business but to do this on the air is not appropriate.”

    Salzman said that she completed the classes and got her sons back.

    “I got a certificate and I kicked my heels on the way out,” she said.

    Watch video about this story at: