Spindale -- After 18 months in limbo, two children of a former Word of Faith Fellowship member were ordered returned to a church couple after an appeals court tossed out a lower court ruling.
In October of 2003, the four children of Shana Muse were ordered re-moved from the home of WOFF ministers Kent and Brooke Covington after a District Court found the WOFF environment abusive.
On Tuesday, the North Carolina Court of Appeals threw out the ruling because it said the Ruther-ford County Department of Social Services lacked the specific jurisdiction needed to seek redress in the court.
The two youngest children -- both boys -- are expected to be returned to their status before the court case, which was in the custody of the Covingtons. The two elder girls successfully petitioned last year for parental emancipation and returned to the church at that time.
DSS Director John Carroll said the boys will remain in foster care for the time being until certain paperwork is finalized.
A devastated Muse vowed to continue the fight to get her children back while attorneys representing the church and the daughters criticized DSS's original actions.
"Word of Faith Fellowship doesn't care anything about those two children, to put them through this," said Muse. "Those are sick people over there. They've torn up so many families they don't care. I have done nothing but turn my life around in the past five years. I will not give up on my boys, they love me and I know they want to be with their mother."
A statement by WOFF leadership released through their attorney David Goldstein said they were "very pleased" with the decision.
"The Word of Faith Fellowship applauds the Court of Appeals' decision, which will further the best interests of the unjustly removed children, and which protects the fundamental principle of freedom of religion," the release states.
Philip Roth is the attorney for Muse's daughters, who filed for and were granted emancipation and are now considered legal adults.
Roth said the Rutherford County DSS went too far with its investigation of abuse at WOFF.
"It's good news for parents precisely because DSS has the power to take kids from anyone's home where abuse and neglect are alleged," said Roth. "This decision reminds DSS in no uncertain terms that in wielding such power it is responsible for doing it properly."
Carroll said DSS is not planning on any further action and will comply with the court's ruling.
"We a certainly disheartened and surprised by the decision because we felt like, and still feel, that any actions we took were in the best interest of the children," said Carroll.
The three-judge panel's 11-page ruling was written by Judge James A. Wynn, Jr.
The other judges were Ann Marie Calabria and Barbara Jackson.
The ruling states little about the merits of the original decision made by District Court Judge Randy Pool, but instead says the DSS failed to follow its own procedures before bringing the case to District Court.
"Rutherford County DSS thus lacked the power to invoke the jurisdiction of the court under North Carolina General Statutes because the investigation did not indicate that abuse or neglect had occurred," the ruling stated. "Because the proper procedure under North Carolina General Statutes was not followed to invoke the jurisdiction of the court, the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction in the underlying cases."
Muse left the church in September of 2002, but left the children with the Covingtons while she went to a center in Ohio specializing in the treatment of former cult members.
Four months later, Muse signed an agreement giving the Covingtons temporary custody of her children.
In late 2002 and early 2003, allegations of abuse of the children were filed with DSS.
The allegations included inappropriate corporal punishment and other harmful religious practices such as "blasting" and "isolation."
DSS decided to refer the charges to and outside county for an "unbiased investigation."
Lincoln County performed the investigation and did not substantiate abuse or neglect in the Covington home.
Because of that report by Lincoln County, the court says the Rutherford County DSS did not have the authority to move forward with further attempts to pull the children from the Covington home.
During testimony, one of two case workers from Lincoln County testified that she thought the children were coached on what to say and said if she had known about blasting she would have substantiated abuse.
She added that something didn't feel right about the situation, but she could keep the case open just on that feeling.
The DSS case was unique in that it alleged Muse had abused the children simply by the act of leaving her children with the Covingtons because she knew the WOFF environment was abusive.
Muse supported the DSS action because it meant the possible removal of her children from the controversial church.
The daughters, Sarah and Rachel Almanie, have since been emancipated and are considered legal adults.
They have returned to the Covington's home.
The two boys are younger and have been in foster care for the past 18 months.
Muse has been trying get full custody of the boys, but DSS court judges delayed making a determination pending the Court of Appeals ruling.
The ruling did not address any of the underlying First Amendment issues regarding freedom of religion.
The WOFF contends their religious practices are protected by the First Amendment.
In previous court cases, judges have ruled that while the First Amendment rights of WOFF members are crucial, abuse in the name of religion is still abuse and is therefore unacceptable in the eyes of the law.
The courts have, through numerous hours of testimony, been trying to find the proper line between religious freedom and abuse.
The WOFF uses a practice called blasting or deliverance prayer or loud prayer.
Ex-WOFF members have testified that the practice usually involves a person seated in the middle of a group of up to 20 people who use guttural sounds or screams to force out demons from the seated person.
Ex-members say blasting is done for everyone in the church including infants and toddlers.
Children also participate in blasting others.
Court testimony also has revealed the WOFF is a very closed network of about 400 members, most of whom live in large homes containing numerous people.
Muse and others have stated each home has a house leader who exerts substantial control over the lives of those in the house.
They say each house leader reports up a hierarchy of leadership up to the spiritual leader and WOFF founder Jane Whaley.
All church members' children attend the WOFF school and many members, including minor children, work in businesses owned or operated by WOFF members, ex-members said.