Rutherfordton -- A District Court judge Tuesday awarded custody of four children currently residing with a family in the controversial Word of Faith Fellowship to the Department of Social Services.
The order by Judge Randy C. Pool set off a search for the children which was unresolved as of late Tuesday night.
The ruling gave the Rutherford County DSS immediate custody of the four children of Shana Muse, a former Word of Faith Fellowship member who had left the children with church officials Kent and Brooke Covington in September 2002 after Muse left the Spindale church.
Muse was extremely happy about the ruling after getting word over lunch Tuesday.
"(WOFF founder) Jane Whaley preached about birthdays being demonic and I just celebrated mine yesterday," said Muse. "I had trust in God and apparently He likes birthdays. This is the best birthday present I've ever received."
Attempts to contact the Covingtons for comment on the ruling were unsuccessful.
After getting the judges order, DSS employed the services of the Rutherford County Sheriff's Depart-ment to get the children and bring them to a safe house outside Rutherford County, but as of 10 p.m. officers had not located any of the Muse children or the Covingtons.
Officers began the search about 5 p.m. trying the church, the Covington's home and other WOFF households.
Chief Deputy C. Philip Byers said that WOFF officials told him the Covingtons were out of town with the children.
"Those officials were told the Covingtons must turn the children over to DSS in the morning, period," said Byers.
In the event the children are not turned over, Byers said the Department would take appropriate action.
"We'll go find them, because they would be in violation of a signed court order," said Byers. "Hopefully, it won't come to that."
The Covingtons -- supported by two of Muse's sisters who belong to the church -- sought permanent custody of the children, but Tuesday's ruling removed any legal claims the couple had to the children.
After leaving the church, Muse eventually sought counseling to deal with her emotional problems caused by her time in the church. Muse returned to Rutherford County in December 2002 and began the process of trying to get her children back from the Covingtons.
Muse said she was praying today for her children to be removed from the church while talking with friend and former WOFF member Holly Hamrick this morning
"I was telling Holly that 'I pray that God does not let the sun go down with my children in WOFF,'" said Muse. 'It's a happy day and a sad day because I know what my kids are going through."
Muse has two teenage daughters and two younger sons.
Judge Pool's ruling was an indictment of the practices of the Word of Faith Fellowship church which he said are mentally and physically abusive to children.
"The court finds that WOFF authorities attempt to exercise complete control over the mind, body and spirit of its members, both adults and children," the ruling states. "This control is obtained and exercised through the use of physical and mental discipline through excessive corporal punishment, blasting and other practices and behaviors found herein."
"The environment created at WOFF has an adverse effect on the health, safety and welfare of children," the ruling continues. "The court recognizes a First Amendment right to the exercise of religious freedom, so long as the health, safety and welfare of children are not affected. The Court finds by clear and convincing evidence the children were abused and neglected by isolation, excessive corporal punishment and blasting while at WOFF church."
The order gives the Rutherford County Department of Social Services immediate custody as of Tuesday's ruling. The children must be given psychological evaluations.
The children will be placed in an undisclosed location away from Rutherford County with Muse and any biological relatives allowed supervised visits. The Covingtons will not be allowed to visit the children.
No visitations will be allowed on WOFF grounds or at the Covington's residence.
"We are very pleased," said Muse's attorney Ed Hensley. "We felt like the judge made a very courageous decision for the best interests of the children. He found the evidence credible that DSS presented. We hope the family can be reunited soon."
DSS Director John Carroll said that reunification will be a process.
"We will provide services with the mom toward reunification with the children as we would in any case," said Carroll.
Carroll said they will get the children now because DSS is now liable for their safety.
The DSS chief said he was not surprised by the ruling.
"I expected the court would not place the children directly with the mother," said Carroll. "I would like to say that our intentions in this case all along were the best interest of the children and determining abuse and neglect and no personal judgment on any institution."
The initial phase in DSS assessment of Muse should take between 90 and 180 days, Muse said.
Muse was hoping it would happen a little sooner so she could celebrate Christmas with her children.
"I'm hoping to have them before Christmas, we haven't had one together since 1999," said Muse. The WOFF, according to Muse, does not allow it's members to celebrate Christmas.
Muse joined the WOFF in 2000 after exiting a troubled life in Florida where she admitted to using drugs and was convicted on a bad check charge. Muse came to Rutherford County in June 2000 to live with sister Suzanne Cooper and her family who were, and still are, WOFF members.
In seven days of testimony in this case, Muse and others told Judge Pool about the constant control over their lives.
The church and the Covingtons, through their attorney Tom Hix, argued that they reach out to people in trouble, like Muse, and most people need and want the disciplined environment the church provides.
The case is a confusing one, because Muse was in the awkward position of rooting for DSS to take custody of her children. Muse wanted her children out of the WOFF no matter how it was done.
DSS initially brought the case solely against Muse, saying that Muse abused the children while a WOFF member. Muse testified that she, at times, was forced to discipline her children in ways she did not believe were appropriate.
In a subsequent legal proceeding, Hix successfully got the Covingtons added as a party to the case.
The DSS case formally began in August 2002. Judge Pool ruled, without a trial, that the children had been abused. He based that ruling on Muse's own admission that she had abused the children and on the original DSS petition which pointed to several specific practices of the church as abusive.
Hix contested that ruling, but it stood and the case moved to immediately to the disposition phase where the court decides what to do with the children.
That phase took a month-and-a-half to conclude with seven days of court testimony, a week more of written affidavits to be submitted and more time for Pool to review the evidence and write the ruling.
Muse expects the case to be appealed, but is prepared to see this through.
"I'm prepared to fight for the long haul," said Muse. "I will never give up on us being a family again."
Muse said she said her faith pulled her through and she still worries about the children remaining in the WOFF.
"All along I've prayed for my kids. I pray for those other children that are still there," said Muse. "I'm just grateful Judge Pool believed me. But most of all, to God be all the glory."