The Digital Courier, May 24, 2003
By JAMES LEWIS, Daily Courier Staff Writer
RUTHERFORDTON — A hearing to determine whether four children now residing with a family inside The Word of Faith Fellowship should be under “the care, custody, or supervision of the state” has been postponed until next month.
However the Department of Social Services may seek an independent psychological exmamination of Shana Muse‘s four children, who are now residing with a church minister and his wife, before the Friday, June 27 hearing.
On May 16, the Department of Social Services filed petitions alleging Muse’s children are abused and neglected.
The petitions were served on Muse and Kent and Brooke Covington, a church minister and his wife who have had physical custody of the children since last September.
The hearing was set for Friday, but the case was continued until the June 27 docket after an attorney for the Covingtons argued his clients had not been given enough time to respond to the petitions.
Tom Hix said his clients were served with the petitions on Tuesday afternoon, meaning they had less than the five-day minimum notice required by state law before such a hearing is held.
DSS attorney Brad Greenway indicated during the brief court proceedings that the agency doesn’t consider the Covingtons a party to the action and only gave them notice of the petition because they have physical custody of Muse’s two boys and two girls.
Greenway, Hix, and Canton attorney Ed Hensley, who was representing Muse, spent a portion of a 90-minute court break in the judge’s chambers with Pool before the attorneys emerged to discuss the issues in the courtroom.
After the hearing was postponed, Pool granted a motion from Greenway for independent psychological evaluations.
Hix said he wanted the motion in writing so his clients could respond, but Judge Pool said granting such requests was routine. The judge said he would leave it up to the parties involved to agree on a time and date for the evaluations.
However, Judge Pool is expected to appoint a guardian ad litem for the Muse children in the near future.
Lee Taylor, the contract attorney for the county’s guardian ad litem program, asked the court’s permission to withdraw from the case, citing her office’s concerns about a “potential bias or conflict.”
Taylor explained she was once involved in a custody case involving WOFF in Marion and said she was familiar with “blasting”, “Word of Faith” and “practices of Word of Faith.”
About four years ago, Taylor’s former law partner, the now deceased Tony Lynch, represented a McDowell County man who was in a legal battle against his estranged wife for custody of their son. The McDowell County man had left WOFF while his wife remained a member of the Spindale-based organization.
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.
This development in the custody battle between Muse, the Coving-tons 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.
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 an 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.”
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.
Last Monday, television program “Inside Edition” aired a segment concerning one of the lawsuits now pending against the WOFF and about a dozen members of the community and former organization members staged a protest at the entrance to the WOFF campus off Oakland Road at Old Flynn Road.