Mother dealt setback in custody battle 21, 2002
By Baker Maultsby

Rutherfordton, N.C. -- Shana Muse was optimistic as she waited outside the Rutherford County district attorney's office Friday morning.

She was confident she would soon be reunited with her four children.

After a brief meeting with District Attorney Jeff Hunt, Muse came away disappointed.

Hunt determined that no criminal charges could be filed against Kent and Brooke Covington, the couple Muse allowed custody of her four children after she left the Word of Faith Fellowship in September and who now, according to Muse, won't give the children back.

Hunt said on Thursday that a review of the facts might reveal a case of false imprisonment.

But on Friday, referring to but refusing to explain a 39-article chapter of the North Carolina General Statutes, Hunt would only say that he planned to ask the Rutherford County Department of Social of Services to investigate the matter.

He said he believes the case is a matter for civil -- not criminal -- court.

Asked if he believed the Rutherford County Sheriff had the authority to remove the children, Hunt said he would answer no more questions.

Sheriff's Chief Deputy Philip Byers said a sticking point in the department's handling of the case is a private custody contract Muse signed with the Covingtons, members of the Word of Faith Fellowship.

Byers explained that county attorney Walter Dalton, who is also a state senator, determined that the contract "could be or could not be legally binding."

Hunt would not say if he wanted DSS to determine whether Muse is a fit parent, but Byers said: "It's not normal practice to sign your kids over to somebody."

According to Byers, Muse was advised to get an attorney to file on her behalf an emergency custody order in civil court. He said such a case could be handled in "half a day."

Byers said he even gave Muse a number for the Pisgah Legal Services, which provides legal help for those who cannot afford the price of an attorney.

Muse claims she's tried to follow the advice of local authorities.

She said she spoke with a representative of Pisgah Legal Services last week but was told the organization could not get to her case until the end of the month.

Meanwhile, she said, one attorney refused to take the case, telling her that civil action could be a lengthy process. She has sought advice from Shelby attorney Rob Deaton but said she hasn't paid him any money so far.

Muse, a Florida native, says she was left penniless after quitting Word of Faith, a group she now describes as a cult.

She believes her children, who have insisted they do not want to live with Muse, have been "brainwashed" against her.

Attempts to reach District Attorney Hunt after the brief news conference were unsuccessful.

Attempts to reach DSS director John Carroll were unsuccessful as well.

On Thursday, Carroll explained that his agency only investigates caregivers -- legal guardians, day care centers and group homes.

Carroll said that any investigation of Muse's case would name Muse as the caregiver of the children. In his view, she is the only person with legal custody of the children.

According to Muse, DSS has investigated her once already. She said that after she left Word of Faith Fellowship in September, her sister, Suzanne Cooper, a member of the church, called the agency.

Muse said DSS granted her the right to take her children. She said she presented DSS Friday with information on what she describes as abusive practices toward children in Word of Faith Fellowship.

Church leader Jane Whaley did not a return a phone call seeking comment, and an attempt to reach Kent and Brooke Covington was unsuccessful.

The Rev. James Daves, pastor of the Spindale-based Adaville Baptist Church, told a Rutherford County newspaper earlier in the week that he and other local church leaders are working to set up a fund to assist those trying to leave Word of Faith Fellowship.

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