RALEIGH (WTVD) — In a case that’s gaining national attention, a Wake County judge ruled Tuesday that a woman must share custody of her three children with her estranged husband and can no longer home school them.
Advocates of homeschooling have characterized the case as a challenge to parent’s rights to home school their children, but court documents released Tuesday show the woman’s family is concerned about her relationship with a small Washington State based church that critics characterize as a cult.
Venessa Mills has homeschooled her children – who are 10, 11 and 12 years old – for the past four years. Her supporters point out that the children have routinely tested 2 years above their grade level.
They’ve even set up a website called homeschoolliberty.com “Dedicated to preserving the freedom of homeschoolers in America for future generations.”
The website creator writes that after hearing about the case that “I suddenly realized that if I do not stand up and take action I will lose my parental right to teach my children according to my own beliefs and convictions.”
But according to court documents, the case doesn’t just center around homeschooling. Estranged husband Thomas Mills claims the couple began to grow apart after she joined the Sound Doctrine Church led by Tim and Carla Williams.
During court proceedings, Tina Wasik, a former member of the church, characterized it as a cult and testified under oath that “Sound Doctrine is not a healthy place to grow up. It is run by fear and manipulation.”
Other former members gave sworn court statements that church leader Tim Williams made inappropriate sexual comments about girls as young as 4.
Former member Jessica Gambill testified that “After I joined Sound Doctrine, Tim Williams told me that my oldest daughter (then age 12) was the kind of girl that men would take advantage of, that my middle daughter (then age 7) was the kind of girl that would sleep with any guy, and that my youngest daughter (age 4) was the kind of girl that would use her looks to seduce men.”
All the accusations against the Sound Doctrine Church and its leaders made by former members were denied in affidavits filed by Venessa Mills’ attorney.
In a temporary custody order issued Tuesday, Judge Ned Mangum found that Venessa Mills’ own parents were concerned for the welfare of their grandchildren because of her relationship with the church and testified that she was “very domineering” with her kids.
For home school advocates who’ve said that Mangum is trying to strip Venessa Mills of her right to home school her children, the judge wrote that the court “clearly recognizes the value of home school – and any effort to characterize it differently is incorrect.”
While he’s ordering the children into public school, he’s not ordering Venessa Mills to stop teaching them about her religion.
“Contrary to Ms. Mills’ requested belief, this Court can not and will not infringe upon either party’s write to practice their own religion and expose their children to the same.”
“In numerous sworn affidavits submitted to the court, witnesses describe this group as a cult,” Mangum wrote.
According to the ruling, Venessa and Thomas Mills had a loving relationship for many years after their 1994 marriage. In 2005, Venessa became involved with the Sound Doctrine Church of Enumclaw, Wash. In Mangum’s findings, Thomas Mills is quoted:
“Venessa stopped communicating with me in any meaningful manner; instead, her responses to me began to consist almost exclusively of quoting Scripture or parroting Sound Doctrine religious rhetoric.
“It became clear to me that our marriage relationship did not matter to her anymore, and she even told her own family members that she did not consider herself married to me.”
Thomas Mills warned his wife that the marriage would end if she valued her religious group more than the marriage, Mangum wrote. “He began to spend less time in the marital home and had an inappropriate sexual relationship” with another woman, the ruling said.
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.