Custody spat hinges on contract's legality 20, 2002
By Baker Maultsby

Rutherfordton, N.C. -- Shana Muse sat by the phone at the home of a friend Thursday afternoon, hoping authorities would call with word that they would help her retrieve her four children from a family in the Word of Faith Fellowship.

That assurance did not come Thursday, but a meeting this morning between Rutherford County Sheriff Dan Good, District Attorney Jeff Hunt and Muse's attorney might help to resolve the unique custody controversy.

A Charlotte-based freelance crew working for the CBS News program "48 Hours" recorded Muse as she recounted the story of her exit from the Word of Faith Fellowship -- and the document she signed giving custody of her children to church members Kent and Brooke Covington.

Muse explained that when she left Word of Faith Fellowship in September, she was neither financially nor emotionally prepared to care for her children, who she said were enraged by her decision to take them out of the controversial religious group.

Word of Faith Fellowship is a Spindale-based ministry whose unusual practices have attracted national attention.

Former members say rigid control is exercises over the group by the practice of "blasting" -- a prayer session in which members hover around and scream at individuals who have broken rules or behaved in ways deemed inappropriate by church leaders.

Muse said children are routinely subjected to blasting sessions.

Though Muse, a Florida native, has two sisters in the church, she said she decided to take the children to the Covingtons, who insisted she sign papers giving them custody rights.

The contract reads in part: "I (Muse) am personally unable to properly care for and supervise (my) minor children." It goes on to state that her agreement to allow the Covingtons custody of the children is "permanent in nature and not temporary."

Muse explained that she has since sought counseling and is ready to reunite with the children, who range in ages from 8-15.

Efforts to reach Sheriff Dan Good Thursday were unsuccessful. But on Wednesday, Chief Philip Byers said he believes authorities cannot intervene in the matter until the legality of the contract is determined.

"We can't go kicking doors in and snatching children if it's legally binding," he said. Spartanburg attorney Ruth Cate, who specializes in family cases, said the contract would not hold up in court unless it is accompanied by a judge's order.

Muse said the church demanded that the contract remain private.

"You can't just sign your kids away," Cate said. "I know the laws are different in North Carolina, but they can't be that different."

Rutherford County District Attorney Jeff Hunt said the contract offers "clear evidence of (Muse's) intentions at the time of the agreement." But he said he does not believe it can ultimately stand between Muse and her children.

Hunt said he plans to meet this morning with Sheriff Good and with Muse's attorney, Shelby-based Rob Deaton, this morning to review the matter.

He noted that Muse's case would be bolstered by proof that she has informed the Covingtons of her plans to retake custody of the children.

Attempts to reach Kent and Brooke Covington were unsuccessful.

But Suzanne Cooper, Muse's older sister and a Word of Faith Fellowship member, described Muse as an unfit mother.

"She has a long history -- even recent history -- of being very abusive, hitting the children, just doing unbelievable things," she charged.

Muse said that when she left Word of Faith Fellowship in September, Cooper called the Department of Social Services in an effort to keep the children from leaving the church with their mother.

DSS officials would not comment on the case, but Muse, who acknowledged she had a bout with drug addiction several years ago, said she was cleared by the agency within a matter of days.

Wanda Henderson, the mother of both women, denied that Muse has abused her children. "She's many made mistakes in her life, but she's always loved her children," said Henderson, who lives in Ocala, Fla. "And they've always loved her."

But whether the kids still love their mother is disputed by a statement read by Wednesday by Word of Faith Fellowship staffer Jayne Caulder.

The statement, which Caulder said was given by 15-year-old daughter Sarah Almanie, said, "We do not want to go with our mother."

"They are the best things that has ever happened to us," Sarah told The Daily Courier of Rutherfordton in an interview at the Word of Faith Fellowship church.

"Mom has told her story and no one has seen our side and what all we've gone through. ... When we first got here our lives were a mess," she said. "This is a better way of living." The children also appeared on WLOS-TV, expressing their desire to stay with the Covingtons.

Henderson is skeptical of the children's remarks.

"The kids have definitely been coaxed," she said.

Henderson, who has 12 other grandchildren in the Word of Faith Fellowship, said she has "never been fond of" the church.

She said she's attended events at the church in the past and met its leader, Jane Whaley. Henderson described Whaley as "a very controlling woman -- very controlling."

Asked if she is fearful for the well-being of her children and grandchildren, Henderson said: "They have the material things they need. I'm fearful for them that their minds are being controlled."

The CBS camera crew is following Muse through the process of trying to reunite with her children.

"It's very hard to have them here," she said.

"But it's worth it if telling my story about being in a cult can help somebody or gets a family watching it to pursue action. I want the world to see what this destructive church is doing to children."

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