Lawyer calls case by Muse bizarre

Herald-Journal/December 25, 2002
By Baker Maultsby

Rutherfordton, N.C. -- Rob Deaton has practiced law for more than two decades, but he has seen few cases more bizarre than the one he took on this past Friday.

Deaton, a Shelby attorney, represents Shana Muse, a former Word of Faith Fellowship member trying to win custody of her four children.

Her two sons and daughters, ages 8 to 15, are currently in the care of Kent and Brooke Covington.

The Covingtons, members of the church, took the children in September after Muse left the group, which she now describes as a cult. Muse at first took her children but later signed a private contract stating the Covingtons would have custody.

The Covingtons filed suit on Monday at the Rutherford County Courthouse, alleging that Muse is an unfit mother. They are asking for permanent custody of her children.

A judge will hear the case on Tuesday.

"It's one of the most unusual cases I've ever been involved in," said Deaton, who said that he and Muse had planned to file for an emergency custody order "but they beat us to the courthouse."

The contract has been a barrier for Muse, who has tried to enlist the help of law enforcement officials since returning to Rutherford County about two weeks ago.

On Friday, District Attorney Jeff Hunt determined the Covingtons had not broken the law by keeping Muse's children even after she demanded their return.

He said he thought the custody contract would have no legal bearing in civil court, but he said the fact that Muse allowed her children to stay with the Covingtons makes it difficult to assert any criminal behavior.

He explained his decision Tuesday: "Every legal system cannot have procedures in place to accommodate every scenario," he said.

Hunt said that Muse's behavior -- signing her kids over to another family after taking them out of the church -- is unusual. "That has to be taken into consideration," he said.

Muse denies the validity of the agreement, which she claims she signed under duress. She said she left the Word of Faith Fellowship without the financial resources to care for her children.

Muse has since sought counseling at a program in Ohio for former members of cults and says she now is ready to reunite with her children.

Greensboro attorney Marilyn Feuchs-Marker, who specializes in family and custody law, said this case is different from those involving two parents fighting for custody.

In cases between parents, a judge usually will consider the "best interest" of the children. A judge might, for instance, try to keep a child from having to move out of town or transfer from one school to another.

But in cases involving a third party -- plaintiffs who are not the legal parents of the child -- "parents' rights are paramount," Feuchs-Marker said. The Covingtons, in this case, will have to prove that Muse is an unfit mother.

Indeed, they claim she is unfit. The suit filed Monday notes her earlier problems with drugs and alleges instances of verbal and physical abuse.

Muse's sister, Suzanne Cooper, a Word of Faith Fellowship member, said last week that Muse mistreated her kids.

But Wanda Henderson, the mother of both Muse and Cooper, described Muse as a sometimes troubled, but always loving parent.

Her description of Word of Faith Fellowship was less positive. She said she is convinced that church leader Jane Whaley is "very controlling."

In a 2000 custody battle involving a Word of Faith Fellowship member, a judge issued a set of findings that reflected negatively on the way the church treats children.

Deaton, who said he intends to bring Whaley in for a deposition, warns that a courtroom fight over Muse's children could air more ugly practices.

"Maybe everything they are doing is proper, but we plan to get to the bottom of it," he said.

An attempt to reach the Covingtons' attorney, Tom Hix, was not successful.

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