Georgia officials botched abuse investigation into children’s ministry

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David Fahey gives an exclusive interview about The King’s Cleft, his East Georgia childrens' ministry, and the child cruelty charges he faces. AJC Video by Johnny Edwards, Ryon Horne and Tyson Horne

GBI failed to look into teens’ 2014 allegations of abuse; “Should have done more,” agency director says.

WRIGHTSVILLE, Ga. — When a pair of on-the-run teenagers were picked up by authorities near an I-16 overpass in Middle Georgia, they told a tale of physical and psychological abuse, carried out under the banner of God.

They described life at a nearby Christian ministry’s farm that included being hog-tied with handcuffs, shackles and zip ties, according to police records. They said they were forced to fast for days without food and water, and that kids were being cuffed, shackled and locked in mesh restraint beds, records show.

The local sheriff called in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in 2014 to investigate the abuse allegations against the couple that ran The King’s Cleft ministry, which took in children whose families had given up on them.

“Everything came back fine,” according to former Johnson County Sheriff Rusty Oxford, who said the GBI’s conclusion eased his mind. “There was nothing they found.” The children were returned to live at the ministry’s 20-acre farm.

The GBI’s handling of the case eight years ago failed the teens and roughly a dozen other children living at the farm, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found. The state’s chief law enforcement agency conducted a review that was inadequate and did little to dig into the allegations, the AJC learned. It effectively left children in the care of a Christian ministry that authorities now say was abusive, as new criminal allegations surfaced this year similar to those from 2014.

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For 16 years, Kathy and David Fahey took in unwanted children and raised them on their 20-acre farm in rural Johnson County. The property has vegetable gardens, a playground and a windmill. In this photo, the family cemetery where Kathy and six of her children are buried can be seen in the distance. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

For 16 years, Kathy and David Fahey took in unwanted children and raised them on their 20-acre farm in rural Johnson County. The property has vegetable gardens, a playground and a windmill. In this photo, the family cemetery where Kathy and six of her children are buried can be seen in the distance. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

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For 16 years, Kathy and David Fahey took in unwanted children and raised them on their 20-acre farm in rural Johnson County. The property has vegetable gardens, a playground and a windmill. In this photo, the family cemetery where Kathy and six of her children are buried can be seen in the distance. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

But the GBI isn’t the only state authority that failed kids living at the ministry, the AJC’s investigation found. The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, tasked with investigating child abuse and neglect, went to the home repeatedly over the years, but allowed it to continue to operate, the AJC found. DFCS had also looked into the runaway teens’ abuse claims, but found nothing concerning, according to the GBI.

Kathy and David Fahey, who started The King’s Cleft ministry in 2005, have said they were called by God to take in children who had no place else to go. The couple over the years raised children in wheelchairs with special needs and others with serious emotional problems. They tended to adopt the children in their care.

Their farm, where the ministry operated, is on an isolated stretch of Johnson County, about seven miles outside of Wrightsville, a town of 3,450. The property had horses and goats, a playground and vegetable gardens, a windmill and a water tower. A family cemetery near the farm’s entrance contains grave markers where severely disabled children, who died on the property, are buried.

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Kathy and David Fahey, seen here in a photo taken about a decade ago, founded The King's Cleft children's ministry in 2005. Kathy Fahey died Feb. 1 from toxic levels of acetaminophen, just 11 days after the GBI began investigating abuse allegations. (Handout)

Credit: Contributed

Kathy and David Fahey, seen here in a photo taken about a decade ago, founded The King's Cleft children's ministry in 2005. Kathy Fahey died Feb. 1 from toxic levels of acetaminophen, just 11 days after the GBI began investigating abuse allegations. (Handout)

Credit: Contributed

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Kathy and David Fahey, seen here in a photo taken about a decade ago, founded The King's Cleft children's ministry in 2005. Kathy Fahey died Feb. 1 from toxic levels of acetaminophen, just 11 days after the GBI began investigating abuse allegations. (Handout)

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

The ministry’s name is based on imagery from a dream Kathy said she had where an injured lamb was protected by Jesus in the cleft of a cave. The Faheys were guided by their firebrand interpretation of Christianity. That included administering spankings and home-schooling the children with a religious curriculum.

Just 11 days after the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office brought in the GBI to investigate the ministry for new allegations of abuse that surfaced in January, Kathy Fahey died on Feb. 1 from toxic levels of acetaminophen, the pain reliever in Tylenol, which she took to treat degenerative hip disease. The coroner’s office ruled her death accidental. She is buried alongside the children’s graves.

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Kathy’s passing left David Fahey to stand alone against criminal allegations of using handcuffs, leg irons and cloth restraints on a 14-year-old boy who ran away about a half dozen times. Arrest warrants issued earlier this year accuse Fahey of beating the boy with a wooden rod, a belt and a golf club, and making him go hungry by only providing one meal per day.

Fahey faces three counts of cruelty to children in the second degree, one count of cruelty to children in the first degree and three counts of false imprisonment. A Johnson County grand jury is scheduled to meet June 22 and could consider indictments in the case.

Fahey, who is free on bond, gave multiple interviews to the AJC for this story. He said he and his wife looked out for the children long after their adoptive or biological families had given up. He said he only did what was necessary to control a house packed with children, some of whom had severe behavior problems and could be a threat to themselves or other kids.

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In the final years of The King's Cleft's operation, physically disabled children slept in these wooden beds that close and lock from the outside. David Fahey, seen here, said they kept children who couldn't walk from rolling onto the floor while sleeping. (Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com)

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

In the final years of The King's Cleft's operation, physically disabled children slept in these wooden beds that close and lock from the outside. David Fahey, seen here, said they kept children who couldn't walk from rolling onto the floor while sleeping. (Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com)

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

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In the final years of The King's Cleft's operation, physically disabled children slept in these wooden beds that close and lock from the outside. David Fahey, seen here, said they kept children who couldn't walk from rolling onto the floor while sleeping. (Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com)

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

Fahey denies starving any child beyond making them go to bed without supper, but he admits to handcuffing and shackling some of the teens to their beds to keep them from leaving the house at night.

“People don’t understand the kind of children that we were dealing with here,” Fahey, 62, said. “It’s a lifetime commitment to take care of children like this, and you don’t always know what you’re getting into until you’re knee deep in it.”

He said he used restraints while trying to prevent the adopted siblings who ran away in 2014 from sneaking out to have sex with each other. He also described using handcuffs on a boy with Down syndrome who would go into fits of rage and hit, kick, bite and scratch.

He said he and his wife used corporal punishment only on the children who weren’t physically disabled. He cited Bible passages from Proverbs that say, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son,” and, “The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil.”

“Sometimes I used my open hand,” Fahey said. “Sometimes I used my belt. Sometimes I used a piece of a dowel rod.”

What happened at King’s Cleft reveals the circumstances children can land in when they’re abandoned and re-adopted through private channels and how agencies charged with ensuring their safety can look the other way.

“It sounds like no one ever acted in the best interests of these children,” said Joe Sarra, an advocate with the Georgia Advocacy Office, which looks out for people with disabilities.

‘We dropped the ball’

The AJC started investigating the ministry in February based on a tip that mentioned alleged abuse and referenced the graves located on the farm.

Following Fahey’s arrest in March, the newspaper asked the GBI about the 2014 case. That prompted the agency to conduct a review of the case file. GBI Director Vic Reynolds acknowledged in an interview that his agency bungled the case — badly. He relayed what the command staff told him.

“They were very candid and just said, ‘We dropped the ball. We didn’t do what we were supposed to do,’” he said.

The assigned case agent did such poor work, Reynolds said, that he would probably fire her if she hadn’t already resigned a few years ago.

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GBI Director Vic Reynolds, left, who began leading the agency in 2019, said former Agent Kendra Fitzgerald, right, only did "cursory work" when she was assigned to look into abuse allegations at The King's Cleft children's ministry in 2014. "It was a case where we should have done more, and we didn't," Reynolds said. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com and Georgia Bureau of Investigation)

Credit: Tyson Horne & Contributed

GBI Director Vic Reynolds, left, who began leading the agency in 2019, said former Agent Kendra Fitzgerald, right, only did "cursory work" when she was assigned to look into abuse allegations at The King's Cleft children's ministry in 2014. "It was a case where we should have done more, and we didn't," Reynolds said. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com and Georgia Bureau of Investigation)

Credit: Tyson Horne & Contributed

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GBI Director Vic Reynolds, left, who began leading the agency in 2019, said former Agent Kendra Fitzgerald, right, only did "cursory work" when she was assigned to look into abuse allegations at The King's Cleft children's ministry in 2014. "It was a case where we should have done more, and we didn't," Reynolds said. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com and Georgia Bureau of Investigation)

Credit: Tyson Horne & Contributed

Credit: Tyson Horne & Contributed

That former agent, Kendra Fitzgerald, had worked out of the Eastman regional office. After being assigned to the King’s Cleft case, the agent appears to have done no more than read a DFCS report, which said DFCS had visited The King’s Cleft and didn’t see or hear anything of concern, Reynolds said.

The agent never talked to the teens who made the allegations and there’s no indication she took any other investigative steps, Reynolds said. None of the sheriff’s office reports in the case are in the GBI file, including a page where a sheriff’s investigator said “there may be some validity” to the teens’ claims of being restrained, the GBI said.

“It was a case where we should have done more, and we didn’t,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said it’s the only time since he became director in 2019 that a case review determined an investigation had been mishandled. A lingering question now, he said, is whether what’s happened at King’s Cleft could have been prevented if the GBI had done more.

“That’s certainly the fear that I have sitting where I’m sitting now,” said Reynolds, a former Cobb County district attorney.

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When he was arrested at his farm on March 2, David Fahey was wearing a QAnon T-shirt. He is charged with three counts of cruelty to children in the second degree, one count of cruelty to children in the first degree and three counts of false imprisonment. (Johnson County Sheriff's Office)

Credit: Contributed

When he was arrested at his farm on March 2, David Fahey was wearing a QAnon T-shirt. He is charged with three counts of cruelty to children in the second degree, one count of cruelty to children in the first degree and three counts of false imprisonment. (Johnson County Sheriff's Office)

Credit: Contributed

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When he was arrested at his farm on March 2, David Fahey was wearing a QAnon T-shirt. He is charged with three counts of cruelty to children in the second degree, one count of cruelty to children in the first degree and three counts of false imprisonment. (Johnson County Sheriff's Office)

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Fitzgerald, now an investigator for the Middle Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s office based in Swainsboro, declined the AJC’s interview request. She resigned from the bureau in 2020 after getting a pay cut and being demoted for subpar work, her GBI personnel file shows.

After their reports of abuse went nowhere, the two teens who ran away were returned to King’s Cleft. The two had been adopted by the Faheys and lived as brother and sister, but had fallen in love. Fahey told the AJC he and his wife sat them both down.

“We said, ‘OK, you guys are going to live this way? You’re going to get married, and you’re going to spend your life together,” Fahey said. “To us, it was better than the alternative.”

He said he summoned a preacher to the property and held a wedding. The two lived together in a trailer on the farm briefly, but that didn’t last long and the newlyweds left for good, Fahey said.

“Wasn’t very long after that that they split up,” Fahey said.

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The King's Cleft's 20-acre farm in rural Johnson County includes a family cemetery, where Kathy Fahey and six of her children are buried. One of the children died in infancy and the others had profound physical disabilities. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

The King's Cleft's 20-acre farm in rural Johnson County includes a family cemetery, where Kathy Fahey and six of her children are buried. One of the children died in infancy and the others had profound physical disabilities. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

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The King's Cleft's 20-acre farm in rural Johnson County includes a family cemetery, where Kathy Fahey and six of her children are buried. One of the children died in infancy and the others had profound physical disabilities. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

DFCS passed through

Kathy Fahey couldn’t say no to children in need, her husband said.

Whenever their church network called and asked if they could take another, Fahey said, his wife saw it as her Christian duty.

There was a financial benefit, too. The ministry’s nonprofit status meant it didn’t pay property taxes on the farm. Fahey said they collected federal disability payments for the special needs children. IRS filings show tens of thousands of dollars annually from Social Security.

Fahey said they probably shouldn’t have taken in so many children with emotional problems who created chaos in the household.

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Kathy and David Fahey's conservative religious beliefs were rooted in the Mennonite faith, and they home-schooled their children with a religious curriculum. Bookshelves inside the home are loaded with Bibles and religious books, and religious posters and banners hang on the walls. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Kathy and David Fahey's conservative religious beliefs were rooted in the Mennonite faith, and they home-schooled their children with a religious curriculum. Bookshelves inside the home are loaded with Bibles and religious books, and religious posters and banners hang on the walls. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

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Kathy and David Fahey's conservative religious beliefs were rooted in the Mennonite faith, and they home-schooled their children with a religious curriculum. Bookshelves inside the home are loaded with Bibles and religious books, and religious posters and banners hang on the walls. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

This set in motion a combustible situation that led to conflict, and sometimes violence. The house was crowded, at one point holding as many as 16 children, many of whom had been traumatized by past abuse or repeated rejections by other families. The Faheys adopted many of the kids and imposed their strong religious views on the household. They kept the family mostly isolated on the farm and homeschooled them.

The Faheys said they were nondenominational, but their conservative beliefs were rooted in the Mennonite faith. They dressed the girls in long dresses and head coverings.

David Fahey said DFCS case workers visited their home roughly 10 times over the years, mostly in response to anonymous complaints of abuse.

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Shelves in the farmhouse garage at King's Cleft ministry are stocked with nutrition formula for the children who lived there, as well as baby chairs and toys. After abuse allegations surfaced earlier this year, the state removed children and disabled adults who lived at the home. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Shelves in the farmhouse garage at King's Cleft ministry are stocked with nutrition formula for the children who lived there, as well as baby chairs and toys. After abuse allegations surfaced earlier this year, the state removed children and disabled adults who lived at the home. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

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Shelves in the farmhouse garage at King's Cleft ministry are stocked with nutrition formula for the children who lived there, as well as baby chairs and toys. After abuse allegations surfaced earlier this year, the state removed children and disabled adults who lived at the home. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

They saw the Posey restraint beds, enclosed by netting, but never raised objections, Fahey said. Those were necessary to keep the developmentally disabled children who couldn’t walk on their own from rolling onto the floor during the night, he said, but they were also used for “time outs” when kids misbehaved.

“They’d walk through,” Fahey said of DFCS case workers. “They’d see where they sleep, they’d see where they eat. Make sure there’s plenty of food in the house. Make sure they’re getting clean.”

The Department of Human Services, which includes DFCS, said it can’t comment on reported abuse or neglect cases, citing privacy laws.

“We take seriously every report or referral that might be made to the department and work with law enforcement when appropriate to ensure the safety of Georgia’s children,” the agency said in a written statement.

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David and Kathy Fahey, and two children, are shown in this 2006 photo. Kathy, who died in February, said their ministry's name, The King's Cleft, was based on imagery from a dream she had where an injured lamb was protected by Jesus in the cleft of a cave. The child's face on the right has been blurred to protect their identity.

Credit: Contributed

David and Kathy Fahey, and two children, are shown in this 2006 photo. Kathy, who died in February, said their ministry's name, The King's Cleft, was based on imagery from a dream she had where an injured lamb was protected by Jesus in the cleft of a cave. The child's face on the right has been blurred to protect their identity.

Credit: Contributed

Combined ShapeCaption
David and Kathy Fahey, and two children, are shown in this 2006 photo. Kathy, who died in February, said their ministry's name, The King's Cleft, was based on imagery from a dream she had where an injured lamb was protected by Jesus in the cleft of a cave. The child's face on the right has been blurred to protect their identity.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Brutal atonement

The Faheys had run afoul of DFCS two decades ago over a disagreement about corporal punishment when they were foster parents in South Georgia, according to David Fahey.

He said they met with state social workers at the time after a girl in their care reported his wife had threatened to spank her. DFCS doesn’t allow foster parents to spank children in state custody, so the state disqualified them from fostering over that issue, Fahey said.

“We believe in biblical discipline,” he said.

DFCSs confirmed to the AJC that the Faheys had been foster parents from 2001 to 2003.

Two years later, the couple founded King’s Cleft.

The AJC reached out to several children who grew up in the ministry and have moved on. Only one agreed to speak for this story, but under the condition that they not be identified, citing fears of conflicts with the Fahey family.

The person, now a young adult, described the ministry as part family, part religious cult and part prison: Any rebelliousness or back talk was considered witchcraft, and punished accordingly. Children sometimes had to atone by “fasting,” going days with only water or milk.

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Police in Johnson County say they had suspicions about The King’s Cleft, whose main driveway is shown here, because teenagers living on the farm kept running away. After being sent back, they would run away again. A former sheriff said it eased his mind, though, after the GBI was asked to look into abuse allegations in 2014, then dropped the case without taking action. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Police in Johnson County say they had suspicions about The King’s Cleft, whose main driveway is shown here, because teenagers living on the farm kept running away. After being sent back, they would run away again. A former sheriff said it eased his mind, though, after the GBI was asked to look into abuse allegations in 2014, then dropped the case without taking action. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Police in Johnson County say they had suspicions about The King’s Cleft, whose main driveway is shown here, because teenagers living on the farm kept running away. After being sent back, they would run away again. A former sheriff said it eased his mind, though, after the GBI was asked to look into abuse allegations in 2014, then dropped the case without taking action. (Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Credit: Tyson Horne / Tyson.Horne@ajc.com

Kathy Fahey regularly told the children they were too feeble-minded to live on their own and would never leave King’s Cleft, the former resident told the AJC. Both parents would beat the children, but Kathy’s brand of punishment could be especially cruel, the person said. If a child resisted, she would start her lash count over, the person said.

“They beat me bad enough to draw blood,” the ex-resident said. “They took my life away.”

On the day of his arrest in March, David Fahey said, he handed about a half dozen pairs of handcuffs and leg shackles over to a GBI agent. He said he hopes to prove his innocence, then bring home two of his adopted children who’ve been taken into DFCS custody and three disabled adults who were placed in a Wrightsville nursing home by Adult Protective Services.

“This is my home for 20 years now,” he said. “My wife is buried here. My children are buried here. I don’t want to go anywhere.”