The Digital Courier, Dec. 21, 2002
By JAMES LEWIS Daily Courier Staff Writer
FOREST CITY — The District Attorney and an attorney for Shana Muse are expected to talk today about the woman’s ongoing endeavor to regain custody of her four minor children from a church minister.
Muse is a former member of Spindale-based Word of Faith Fellowship who left the church in September and a few days later was able to retrieve her children, ages 8 to 15, from the congregation.
Later the same week, Muse signed an agreement handing the children off to Kent Covington, an associate church minister, and his wife, Brooke.
After obtaining counseling at a facility for cult victims in Ohio she returned to the county one week ago and has been asking local authorities to help her reunite her family.
The battle turned public on Wednesday when Muse held a press conference on the courthouse steps and the Covingtons made the children available for media interviews.
Muse said she simply wants her children back but they have been program-med to speak out against her.
The children said they don’t want to go with their mother.
Early this week, the Rev. Jane Whaley, senior pastor at the WOFF, said “If the children want to go, they could go right now. They don’t want to go with their mother.”
A central part of the situation is the agreement between the Covingtons and Muse which was signed on Sept. 18 providing for “the care custody and control of the minor children.”
The document, signed by Muse, states in part: “I understand that henceforth the said Mr. and Mrs. Covington shall make provisions for the care, comfort and maintenance of said minor children and they shall have full authority to make all necessary arrangements to provide for the medical and dental care and treatment of my minor children. Likewise, said Mr. and Mrs. Covington shall have full authority to make all necessary arrangements to provide for the educational needs of my minor children.”
The document also states ” … I hereby acknowledge that my granting of said care, custody and control of my said minor children is to be permanent in nature and not temporary.”
It provides for Muse’s visitation of the children “at times and under circumstances that are mutually agreeable to all parties hereto” and states that Muse has the “right to receive all reports and information” from educational and medical care providers.
In addition, the document provides that Muse will provide child support to the Covingtons.
Muse says she signed the agreement under duress.
Local officials have expressed some reluctance to act on Muse’s behalf, citing their desire for a judge to determine who has legal custody of the four children.
A New York attorney who heads a cultic activities study foundation says he was familiar with such agreements and believed they were not relevant in custody matters.
“I think that this contract, it really truly does remind me of contracts I have run into with some other cultic groups in which a member of a group is asked to give up their children to another member of the group so they can take on church work and actually sell their child,” said Rosedale, president of the American Family Foundation. “But at least in the other cases the recipient of the custody took on the financial obligation, the care support and concern that went with the custody. In this document that I saw the seller of the child continues to remain liable for the money that is involved with care and custody.
“You really have a document that doesn’t even have the transference of parental obligations along with parental rights.”
Rosedale said the document reminded him of the sale of children.
“I just think it is inappropriate in this day and age for us to be dealing in the traffic of children anymore than we would tolerate trafficking children in Southeast Asia for purposes of slavery or prostitution,” he said.
Rosedale stressed he was not implying an “improper motivation on the church or the church group.”
But, he said, the courts are the place to determine custody, not private agreements.
“If somebody wanted to change custody we have legal procedures for doing that,” he said. “I think that the precedent is awful.”
District Attorney Jeff Hunt said Thursday he talked with Muse by telephone and intended to talk to her attorney today and also review any documents pertaining to the situation.
Hunt said the agreement was not at issue when determining custody.
“I have never taken nor has anyone taken the position that the document has any validity whatsoever,” he said.
Instead, Hunt said he was interested in the document for helping determine Muse’s intent as he reviewed whether the incident was a case of kidnapping.
“There is not a kidnapping here and that is what the import of the contract is and that is to establish that you don’t have a kidnapping,” he said. “You may have some other criminal activity. You don’t have child abuse. As far as I know the children’s physical health is not in question.
“If the children are being wrongfully kept from their parent and if the parent has a right to custody — in other words if there is no order anywhere of competent jurisdiction that would deny her custody — then you might have a false imprisonment which would be a common law misdemeanor. There may be an issue about that. But even that has not been established yet. But that might be where this whole thing goes. And there may be a criminal investigation at my request to determine whether that charge is appropriate. But we are not there yet.”
Asked whether Muse still needed to prove to authorities that she has custody of the children, Hunt said, “Since she gave the custody back to the Covingtons voluntarily she has to show us what she has in terms of documentation and I’m going to take a look at what she has.”
Asked whether he could make that determination of custody, Hunt said, “Possibly.”
However, he said, “I’m not purporting to have any official authority to declare that the woman does or doesn’t have custody. I can, however, reach a conclusion in my mind as the District Attorney based on what she shows me about whether I think that a legal conclusion that there is nothing impairing her custody.
“I can reach that conclusion, I think, if I can get enough facts and I can examine her documents.
“In exercising my responsibilities as the District Attorney I reach a conclusion in my mind about the custody issue and therefore as that might peripherally involve an issue about whether there is some kind of criminal conduct.”