Religious Movement at Center of Child Death Investigation
(Story created: 2/4/04)
A religious movement based in Williamson County is now part of a murder investigation. The question: did the Remnant Fellowship's Firm Beliefs inadvertently lead to the beating death of a little boy.
Now, evidence uncovered by NewsChannel 5 could help investigators answer that question.
Gwen Shamblin developed a following of thousands with a Christian diet plan she called the Weigh Down Workshop.
That message led to the formation of her own religious movement, the Remnant Fellowship. The church claims about 1,000 members spread throughout some 130 cities.
It's a movement that demands strict obedience -- even from its children.
"If you want to go back to my teachings, which is what this is founded on, I would have to snap my finger and they would want to obey," Shamblin tells NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.
But now the apparent child abuse death of a young Atlanta-area boy has investigators questioning the Remnant Fellowship's teachings.
"I'm not going to hide behind the fact that our good Lord says do not spare the rod," Shamblin says.
Another Remnant leader, Ted Anger, describes the church's idea of spankings: "As far as a pat on the bottom, as a last resort, and it's always in love."
But two of Remnant's members, Joseph and Sonya Smith, now sit in jail, charged with killing their 8-year-old son, Josef.
Investigators wrote the child had "extensive bruising" over his "entire body," but the parents "showed no remorse."
They felt it "just a part of discipline" and were "very defensive" about their religion, the investigators added.
"Does Remnant advocate repeated spankings of children, over and over and over?" Williams asks.
"Absolutely not," Shamblin replies.
But former Remnant member Teri Phillips says, "Two or three spankings would not be enough. It could be 10 spankings."
She and her husband David say Shamblin not only encouraged spankings, but stressed they must be severe.
"You had to make the spanking count," David says.
In fact, in a tape obtained by NewsChannel 5, Shamblin tells her followers:
"If they're not scared of a spanking, you haven't spanked them. If you haven't really spanked them, you don't love them. You love yourself."
David Phillips adds, "They had to feel the pain and that they were being disobedient."
Then, during one service when their 5-year-old daughter misbehaved, Teri Phillips says another Remnant member pressured her to apply Shamblin's teachings.
"It kept on for about an hour. It was just spanking, trying to see if she would stop crying. Then, if she didn't stop crying, this person was telling me to spank her harder."
Williams asks Shamblin, "Would it ever be appropriate to spank a 2 year old over and over and over and over and over and over in one night?"
"That's not what we teach here, Phil."
But in a conference call with Remnant women, another Remnant leader David Martin holds out his own "showdown spanking" with his daughter as an example.
"A year ago, our two and half year old Avery - we had a real showdown with her.... And we had a leg spanking, over and over and over and over and over and over again time one evening."
Shamblin tells Phil Williams:
"OK, well then, you know, you need to talk to David Martin about that then, because that's not..."
"And you agreed," Williams says, "that's the perfect way to handle a child."
On the tape, she says:
"David Martin had a real showdown. It was a one-night showdown, and that child never forgot it."
"Are you asking does that go on very often?" Shamblin says. "Are you kidding, no, it does not.... It is so rare, and it is only strong-willed children."
In fact, Joseph Smith told investigators that he dealt with his own strong-willed child by spanking him with glue sticks.
"Glue sticks are actually sort of common within the Remnant Fellowship culture to be used to physically discipline children," says Adam Brooks, who was once recruited to join Remnant and now counsels former members.
It was a suggestion that Teri Phillips says she heard from one of her Remnant sisters.
"I said, why. She said, well, because they hurt like switches, that it really hurts, but it doesn't make marks on your children."
Phil Williams asks Shamblin, "Tell me about the use of glue sticks to spank children."
"It was not from here," she replies. "It came from a member somewhere, someplace else and then it went around."
Shamblin tells her followers not to worry about their children's self-esteem, worry more about what she calls their God-esteem.
In the case of young Josef, investigators say his parents locked him up in a small room with just his Bible.
"Does Remnant advocate locking children up for lengthy periods of time?" Williams asks the Remnant leaders.
"We don't advocate locking them up for any period of time," Anger replies.
"Absolutely not," Shamblin adds.
But in the women's conference call, the mother Sonya Smith relates to Shamblin:
"I did exactly what Ted told me to do... Take everything out of his room.... We got everything out of there and locked him in there from that Friday until Monday and only left him in the room with his Bible."
As a result, Smith tells Shamblin that Josef was behaving much more appropriately. Then, Shamblin replies:
""That's a miracle. You've got a child that's going from bizarre down to in-control. So praise God. We are spoiling these kids. We are ruining their lives by even letting them think about themselves at all. So, thank you, Sonya, for sharing that."
Shamblin tells Phil Williams, "That tape has been made or tampered or whatever - I totally deny that that has ever been said by anyone."
"You had a chance to tell her that was not correct," Williams replies.
"That was not on there."
"Instead, you said praise the Lord."
"No, that was not on there."
Shamblin now admits the tape is authentic, but says she was only praising the results achieved by the family.
In addition, the Smiths are accused of depriving their children by refusing to feed them "until their stomachs growled" and then only giving them enough food to "satisfy the growl."
That's patterned after Shamblin's diet teachings.
"Eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full is suggested by the surgeon general," she says. " It is not child abuse."
"I definitely believe that Remnant has created a culture in which people on the fringe might be more likely to do this sort of thing," Adams Brooks says.
Williams asks the Remnant leaders, "Do you think it's possible that you have inadvertently encouraged child abuse?"
"No, no, no," Shamblin replies.
The Remnant Fellowship founder says everywhere she looks she sees lives that have been changed by her teachings.
But critics say she ought to take another look into the face of the child of God named Josef.
"Do you fear for other Remnant children?" Williams asks Brooks.
"Yes, I do."
Even the Remnant's most vocal critics insist they don't believe Ms. Shamblin or anyone ever intended for child abuse to occur.
Shamblin says, if she has anything to apologize for, it's that the tape got out of Remnant's inner circles.
Police in Cobb County, Ga., are obtaining the tape for their investigation.
"We plan to talk to individuals affiliated with the church," says Lt. Paula Sparks, head of the department's crimes against children section.
"If that leads us to the church leaders, then certainly those are the individuals who we'll be contacting."