Forest City -- Two of the four children at the center of a custody battle involving a former Word of Faith Fellowship member have filed for emancipation.
In October 2003, a judge found the WOFF environment abusive to children and order the four children of former WOFF member Shana Muse placed in the custody of the Rutherford County Department of Social Services.
Muse had left the children with WOFF ministers, Kent and Brooke Covington, while Muse left the controversial church. Muse eventually sought counseling at a treatment center in Ohio specializing in ex-cult members. She returned to Rutherford County in December of 2002 to attempt to get her children back.
A custody dispute arose, leading to a DSS-led proceeding and October's ruling by Judge Randy Pool.
Muse has four children, two teenage girls and two younger boys. The two girls, Sarah Almanie, 17, and Rachael Almanie, 16, applied for emancipation which would allow the girls to make their own decisions and remove both DSS and Muse from legal guardianship roles.
During testimony in various court cases, the girls have each expressed a desire to live with the Convingtons whom they refer to as mom Brooke and dad Kent. They refer to WOFF co-founder Jane Whaley as Grandma Jane. Brooke Covington is the adopted daughter of Whaley.
During a recent district court case, the children admitted that the Convingtons have periodically deposited money into their savings accounts to cover college expenses.
Both girls claim to have graduated from the WOFF school and have attended college classes at Isothermal Community College. Sarah has taken classes at Wofford College.
Part of the criteria for approving an emancipation request is that the teenager be self-supporting.
Claims by the two teenagers have been compiled by their attorney, Philip Roth of Asheville. Roth declined to comment on the case because it is a juvenile matter.
Muse is represented by Ed Hensley of Canton.
Hensley said Muse's response to the emancipation claim is due July 17. Prior to that, a DSS court hearing on June 29 will take place regarding Muse's request for full custody of her children.
Muse's two boys have been staying at a separate home from the two girls while the four have been in DSS custody.
Muse plans to move back to Florida where her mother and one of her sisters live if she is awarded custody.
The Covingtons have filed an appeal to Pool's ruling giving DSS custody. Attorney filings in that case are due this week at the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
North Carolina statutes on emancipation allow children age 16 or older to petition.
A hearing will take place with a judge, but no jury, presiding over testimony and cross examination. The burden of proof is on the petitioner, in this case the two Almanie girls.
The court can approve the emancipation if the following are in place:
That all parties are properly before the court or were duly served and failed to appear and that time for filing an answer has expired;
That the petitioner has shown a proper and lawful plan for adequately providing for the petitioner's needs and living expenses;
That the petitioner is knowingly seeking emancipation and fully understands the ramifications of the act; and,
That emancipation is in the best interests of the petitioner.
In other legal maneuvers, attorneys for the WOFF and Lacy Wien are gathering statements and planning strategy for an expected fall trial of a $2.8 million civil suit filed by Wien.
Attorneys for the WOFF and DSS are also gathering information on a federal discrimination lawsuit filed by WOFF against the state agency.