Daily Courier, May 21, 2003
By JAMES LEWIS, Daily Courier Staff Writer
RUTHERFORDTON — The Rutherford County Department of Social Services has filed petitions asking a court to determine if four children now residing with a family inside The Word of Faith Fellowship should be under “the care, custody, or supervision of the state.”
The documents, served Tuesday, allege the children are being abused and neglected. The DSS petitions focus on several aspects of the church’s practices: Severe corporal punishment, isolating children for up to months at a time and a form of prayer called “blasting” which former church members say is meant to drive devils and demons from a person’s body.
The DSS action is believed to be the first instance in which the agency has asserted that specific practices at WOFF are harmful to children.
A District Court judge is scheduled to hold a hearing on the allegations on Fri-day.
The petitions concern the four minor children of Shana Muse, a Florida woman who left the Spindale-based church last September.
Muse’s children — two boys and two girls — are now residing with Kent and Brooke Covington. Mr. Covington is an associate minister within the WOFF organization.
The petitions indicate that DSS authorities may seek custody of the four children. This development in the custody battle between Muse, the Covingtons and the church is the latest in a series of legal matters now pending. The church is also currently being sued in separate lawsuits by two former members.
“I have finally got some hope that the wait is coming to an end and that we can be a family again,” Muse said on Tuesday afternoon.
A Sheriff’s deputy served Muse and the Covingtons with the petitions on Tuesday morning.
The Covingtons had no comment on the action.
Muse’s two boys and two girls, all under the age of 16, have been in the public spotlight since last September when Muse left the WOFF alone and regained custody of the children only after seeking assistance from the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department.
However, two hours later, Muse returned to the Covingtons and delivered the children, signing a “Agreement for Care, Custody and Control of Minor Children” which provided for the children’s care.
Muse later sought treatment at an Ohio counseling center which specializes in assisting former cult members. She returned to Rutherford County last December and has since mounted an extended effort to retake custody of the children.
Those efforts took a turn in late December when the Covingtons obtained temporary custody of the children and filed a lawsuit for permanent custody. Muse has filed a countersuit also demanding permanent custody and was granted visitation rights as part of court-approved negotiations.
DSS first had contact with the children on the evening which Muse first left WOFF. Four months later, in late December, District Attorney Jeff Hunt directed DSS to investigate the children’s welfare. Hunt said Tuesday he had not yet received a formal report on the probe, but informal findings indicated no “criminality.”
In the petitions, DSS officials allege that the WOFF is a harmful environment for the children and assert that Muse “knowingly and willfully exposed her children to continued additional abuse” when she signed the agreement and left her children with the Covingtons last September.
The abuse allegations center on “cruel or grossly inappropriate devices or procedures used to modify behavior” such as “blasting.” The neglect allegations stem from charges of “inappropriate discipline,” namely “severe corporal punishment.”
“This inappropriate behavioral modification within the organization was manifested in part by a ritual the mother refers to as “blasting,” described as a procedure whereby a child is restrained emotionally by the sheer overwhelming presence of a group of adults and other children gathered around the child, while for as long as hours at a time those in attendance scream at the child in an often unintelligible, shrill, high-pitched piercing voice in an attempt to ensure no reoccurrence of whatever behavior led to the perceived requirement for the treatment in the first place,” the petition states.
“According to the mother, the infractions that result in this procedure are in general quite innocuous; things such as laughter, criticizing a teacher, asking to accompany adults on shopping trips and reading the ingredients label on cereal boxes.”
In addition, the complaint details a practice commonly referred to by former members as “church discipline” or “isolation.”
The petition states that “organization leaders often place children in ‘isolation’ prohibiting contact with other children and allowing only limited contact with designated adults for days, weeks and even months at a time. During ‘isolation’ children are not permitted to attend school nor communicate with persons other than designated adults.”
The complaint states that during “isolation” children must sit alone in a room watching taped sermons of Jane Whaley, the church’s leader.
“Children in the organization, which runs its own mandatory school, have been kept in ‘isolation’ for so long that the child is not able to be promoted to the next grade the following year,” the petition states.
On the matter of excessive discipline, the complaint states that Muse noticed bruises on one of her children at least three times.
The complaint states that “severe corporal punishment included “repeated spanking of (Muse’s children) by herself and organization members for relatively minor infractions such as laughing at inappropriate times or making fun of organization members behind their backs.”
“One bruise was described as two inches long on the child’s thigh,” the petition states.
In addition, one child “as a form of punishment or discipline, was required to work what amounted to a regular job for ten weeks for Kent Covington,” the petition states. “The reason for this discipline was the child’s comment made to (Muse) that a sermon had been too lengthy.”
“(Muse) admits that she has been well aware of the organization’s cruel and excessive discipline of children since she joined,” the document states. “She further admits that all her children have been victims of such discipline on more than one occasion, at times at her own hands.”
The complaint states that while custody matters are pending before a court “the children remain until the present in the physical care, custody and control of the Covingtons and are subject to the same lifestyle and treatment they endured for more than two years until their mother left the organization.”
Over the past eight years, many former members have alleged that the WOFF operates a closed society under strict control of a few top leaders and dictates nearly every facet of life, including when married couples within the church can have intimate relations.
“Organization members lose complete control over the most minute details of their individual lives.” the DSS petition states. “They must surrender control over how they dress, what they read, where they live and with whom, the persons with whom they associate, where they work, their financial resources, discipline of their children, who their marriage partners are to be, when married partners are permitted to have sex and practically every other aspect of their lives to those in positions of organizational leadership, particularly to its head Jane Whaley.”
The treatment of children at WOFF has been a chief concern raised by some of the organization’s detractors.
In December 2000, following a custody battle involving children who were in the organization, District Court Judge C. Randy Pool ruled that “the environment created at WOFF has an adverse effect on the health, safety and welfare of children.”
In addition, DA Hunt, who ordered an investigation into the church practices in 1995, said the church’s “unorthodox practices seem to lend themselves to abuses.” No charges were filed as a result of that investigation.
The WOFF has been under increasing public scrutiny since Muse returned to North Carolina last December to retake custody of her children.
The DSS has been investigating complaints regarding the welfare of children and two adult former members have filed civil suits alleging they were the victims of “intentional infliction of emotional distress” at the hands of WOFF leaders.
The church has also attracted renewed attention from some members of the media, including the national television show “Inside Edition” which aired a story concerning one of the pending lawsuits on Monday evening.