Rutherfordton, N.C. -- Shana Muse says a written agreement giving custody of her four children to a family in the Spindale-based Word of Faith Fellowship was signed "under great duress."
But the document is standing in the way of Muse's efforts to reunite with the children.
Muse left the Word of Faith Fellowship -- a group she now describes as a cult -- in September. She said officers with the Rutherford County Sheriff's Office helped her to gain control of the kids.
Muse, however, said she took the children back to the home of group members Kent and Brooke Covington. As Muse explained it, the children were hysterical, "screaming at the top of their lungs."
Meanwhile, she left the group without money or a job. She claims the Covingtons demanded she sign an agreement but insists it only allowed for them to "temporarily care for the children" while Muse sought counseling and got back on her feet.
For several weeks, Muse lived in a local apartment and kept in touch with her children. She said that over time, she was allowed to see the children less frequently and only in the presence of church members.
After spending two weeks in the Ohio-based Wellspring counseling program, Muse returned to Rutherfordton on Dec. 12 to regain custody of her children. She believes they are being held illegally.
Word of Faith senior pastor Jane Whaley, however, told the Rutherford Daily Courier that "if the children want to go, they could go right now."
Whaley was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but in a telephone interview, church staff member Jane Caulder read the following statement, which she said was given by Muse's oldest child, 15-year-old Sarah Almanie:
"We do not want to go with our mother. We are afraid of her. She has abused us all of our lives. Now we have parents that really love us, and we are happy for the first time in our lives."
Caulder called the Herald-Journal minutes later to add this remark to Almanie's statement:
"We can go to bed at night, and we're not afraid to go to sleep."
Muse said that she has spanked her children, who range in age from 8 to 15, but she denied the allegations of abuse.
Caulder would not permit an interview with the children and would not answer questions about the church.
Word of Faith Fellowship has been described as an evangelical Christian ministry that, according to some former followers, employs rigid control over group members.
Holly Hammerick, who took part alongside Muse in a news conference Wednesday at the Rutherford County Courthouse, recalled a trademark practice of the ministry: "blasting."
As she described it, blasting is a ritual to rid an individual of evil spirits.
"You're sat down in a chair, and you have 30 people screaming over you. They have their hands on you, and it's very physical, and it can last for hours," she explained.
Hammerick said children as young as nine months old may be subjected to blasting.
Word of Faith Fellowship's unusual practices -- and the stories told by former members -- have attracted national attention.
"Inside Edition" aired an investigative story on the church in 1995.
Mary Alice Chrnalogar, a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based author who specializes in reuniting families whose members have belonged to cults, called Word of Faith Fellowship "one of the top five most dangerous cults in America."
Sheriff's Chief Philip Byers said custody cases involving Word of Faith members come up several times a year. Normally, they involve parents who have split up.
Muse's case is unique, said District Attorney Jeff Hunt, especially because of the agreement she signed allowing the children to stay with the Covington family.
The contract "flies in the face of an allegation of kidnapping," said Hunt, referring to a written statement by Muse indicating that she plans to file kidnapping charges unless the children are returned.
"You have to wonder what's going through the mind of a woman who gets her kids but then takes them right back. At best, it's an odd situation that leads us to be cautious in how we approach the matter," Hunt said.
Chrnalogar, author of "Twisted Scriptures: A Path to Freedom from Abusive Churches," is working to help Muse prepare to reunite with her children. She has no use for Hunt's logic.
"Just because they've (sheriff's officers) tried to help her before, that's no excuse not to help her now," said Chrnalogar, who emphasized that the signed documents have not been with any public officials.
Muse said the church insisted on keeping the contract private.
Asked whether she had a message for her children, Muse said: "Just that I love them."