Custody fight goes public

Daily Courier/December 20, 2002
By James Lewis

Rutherfordton -- Both sides in the battle for custody of four minor children now in the care of an associate minister at Word of Faith Fellowship took their stories to the news media on Wednesday afternoon.

The children's mother, Shana Muse, talked with reporters on the steps of the Rutherford County Courthouse about her attempts to retake custody of the two boys and two girls, ages 8 to 15, she left in the minister's care three months ago after leaving the controversial church in Spindale.

Meanwhile, WOFF associate minister Kent Covington and his wife, Brooke, made the children available to several media outlets, including The Daily Courier, for interviews.

Muse, who came to the church two years ago, left the congregation in September. A few days later, with the help of sheriff's deputies, she retook custody of the children. Within two days, she took the children back to the couple and signed a contract giving the Covingtons charge of the four children.

Since that time, Muse has sought treatment at a well-known counseling center in Ohio which specializes in helping former members of cults. She returned to the county one week ago and has since been asking for authorities' help in retaking the children.

Now, both sides are alleging abuse.

The four children said Wednesday that their mother neglected them and their needs, even physically abusing them.

Muse has said she made mistakes but denied abusing her children and said whatever they might say about her was scripted by church leaders.

"I have given them spankings," she said. "That's not against the law. I don't consider that abuse."

In September, the Department of Social Services completed a safety assessment of Muse and cleared her to take custody of the four children.

Reading from a prepared statement, Muse said, "My children have been programmed not to leave so I cannot get them to leave without assistance, but they will obey the sheriff or Kent or Brooke Covington. That is the way they are programmed. The first time the sheriff picked my children up, they got in the car like the sheriff asked."

Several "curious observers" stood within sight of the courthouse steps while the press conference was conducted. One WOFF member stood on the sidewalk talking on a cellular phone before the press conference started. Several people spotted another person taking photographs from a parked car on Main Street. The daughter of two church members stood at the courthouse doors throughout the press conference, but described herself as just a "curious observer" when asked by former church member Holly Hamrick if she was "a spy."

Muse was flanked by supporters Hamrick, who also left the church earlier this year, and Mary Alice Chrnalogar, the author of a book Twisted Scriptures: Breaking Free >From Churches that Abuse, who has assisted victims of cults.

Four Rutherfordton police officers were on hand during the event.

Muse, like many former members of the WOFF, says the church exerts a controlling environment and engages in harmful practices, including loud prayer, corporal punishment and even using children to clean homes of church leaders and to clear land.

The children told reporters coming to the church was the best thing that ever happened to them and they wanted to be adopted by the Covingtons.

On the perimeter of the custody issue, a group of area pastors were continuing their campaign to raise money to help Muse and others who might leave the WOFF in the future.

State and county authorities have sat on the sideline of the custody issue so far, and have maintained their stance that Muse should hire an attorney and let a judge decide the matter.

Muse said on Wednesday that she had hired an attorney but was not prepared to release the person's name.

Several authorities have questioned why Muse signed the contract with the Covingtons.

"I had four children screaming at the top of their lungs for nearly two hours," she said in her statement at the press conference. "They were saying things like I was killing them, taking them to hell, and taking them away from doing God's will because I was taking them away from The Word of Faith Fellowship. I had received no outside counseling. I had no place to live, no job and no way to feed my four children. As this is a usual state most cults leave you in so that you will return to them, I felt I had no option but to bring them back to a couple in the church of the Word of Faith."

She said she was pressured into signing the agreement and was told it was needed in case of her death.

After the press conference, Muse delivered a two-page letter to the Sheriff, the District Attorney and other officials again asking for their help.

Muse states that she orally revoked her agreement with the Covingtons on Wednesday and planned to "hand deliver a letter stating this in writing to Kent and Brooke Covington. If my children are not handed over to me and if no law enforcement agency retrieves my children, I will then proceed with kidnapping charges."

District Attorney Jeff Hunt said the statement was the first indication of any potential criminal conduct regarding the situation.

Hunt qualified his opinion, stating the complaint might rise to the level of potential criminal conduct "under some circumstance if certain things happened above and beyond what she alleges here."

The prosecutor hinted that he was frustrated by the situation and was willing to meet with Muse.

"You have legal assets available to you ... even if you are indigent," he said. "I am available if she wants to talk to me. I really, I'm just amazed when somebody holds a press conference on the steps of the courthouse when they haven't done more than stop by my office and sat in the waiting room for more than 13 seconds and talked with one of my people. It's not like she's being closed out of any remedy which she has available to her. It's just that she needs to exert them."

In September, Rutherford County Sheriff's deputies accompanied Muse to collect her children when she presented court papers from the state of Florida and the Department of Social Services regarding their custody.

Last Thursday, the Sheriff's Department refused a similar request.

Sheriff's Chief Deputy C. Philip Byers said the agency was waiting for a judge or the District Attorney's office to determine what if any action should be taken.

Specifically, Byers said the agency was hesitant to act because of the contract agreement between Muse and the Covingtons.

"We can't go around kicking doors down without some sort of court official or judge's (orders)," he said.

The Rev. James Daves, pastor at Adaville Baptist Church in Spindale, said the pastors of 17 different churches throughout the community are supporting a fund to help Muse and other WOFF members who want to leave the church.

The Rev. Daves said the pastors have been meeting for some time to talk and pray about the countywide Jesus video project and a community revival scheduled for next month at The Foundation.

The Rev. Daves said he told the pastors about the Faith Freedom Fund at a meeting earlier this week.

"They were all in agreement and all supportive and all concerned about the situation," he said.

Muse went to the Covington's home last week seeking the children, but said she was turned away.

She said she has since been unable to talk with them on the telephone or meet with them.

"The church told my children to sign their last names as Covington," she said. "I was told by Brooke Covington that the church has also changed the names of my children where they attend the church's school."

Asked by reporters why she didn't simply go take her children, Muse said she did not want to break the law.

"Because if I get in trouble with the law (I wouldn't get to be with my children)," she said. "If I could grab my children, I would."

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