RUTHERFORDTON — Four people took the stand in day four of the custody battle being fought in a Rutherford County Department of Social Services action.
In testimony Wednesday, the children’s aunt said that she believed the children should remain in the custody of a family associated with the Word of Faith Fellowship so that they would be in the “will of God.”
Also on Wednesday, a former teacher for two of the children denied they were spanked or blasted, and two DSS workers testified abut their investigation into the case and one said she believed the children she interviewed were coached.
The DSS is attempting to get custody of the children of Shana Muse, a former member of the Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, who left her children in the custody of Kent and Brooke Covington, ministers in the WOFF. The children have been in the Covington’s custody since last September.
Muse left the children with the couple after she left the church and eventually sought counseling for what she says is an abusive environment at the church.
DSS contends that environment is also harmful to the Muse’s four children and the children, ages 9 to 16, should be removed immediately.
A temporary court order giving the Covingtons custody of the children and setting up a visitation schedule has been in effect since the first of this year.
Wednesday, two DSS workers from Lincoln County took the stand as well as current WOFF members Mark Morris and Muse’s sister Cindy Cordes.
Morris was accused by Muse of spanking and possibly injuring one of her sons who had a bruise on his knee.
Cordes finished her testimony which began Tuesday afternoon. Cordes and another sister, Suzanne Cooper, were instrumental in bringing Muse to the WOFF in 2000 after Muse ran into trouble with drugs and the law.
Muse left the WOFF in September of 2002, choosing to leave her children with the Covingtons and not either of her sisters. Muse supports DSS’s action to remove the children from the church.
It is within Judge Randy Pool’s authority in the case to give Muse immediate custody of the children if the children are to be re-moved from the Covington’s household. Though, more than likely, Muse would have to go through a series of steps such as establishing a residence and acquiring a job before being granted full custody.
The Covingtons, on the other hand, want to have permanent custody of the children and contend that Muse is an unfit mother.
In the first part of 2003, Rutherford County DSS asked Lincoln County to come in and give an independent evaluation of the living conditions at the Covington household as it relates to the Muse children.
Mende Kelly and Ashley Smith were brought in and did a series of interviews with all 18 members of the Covington household and some other church members.
The scope of the investigation was limited to the Covington household. Neither the church, nor the church’s school were investigated.
Kelly took the stand first Wednesday. Kelly was called by Covington’s attorney Tom Hix.
She said their purpose in doing the case was to give an unbiased investigation.
“When another department is brought in it is because of some conflict (of interest),” she said. “With all the media attention they wanted an unbiased assessment.”
Kelly stated that their investigation was unable to substantiate allegations of abuse at that time. A report stating that was sent to the Rutherford County DSS in April 2003.
Kelly primarily interviewed the two older girls. Muse has four children, two teenage girls and two younger boys.
Kelly met with the girls for about an hour each in January and with all four children for about a half hour each in March.
She said neither of the girls told her they had been abused, only one of the two said they had been spanked. Kelly said the girls were comfortable during the interview, that they smiled and laughed and had a sense of humor.
Hix spent most of Kelly’s time probing for information about DSS procedures, including procedures for investigating institutions and not individuals. Kelly said that, except for daycare centers, DSS generally does not investigate institutions.
Hix asked Kelly about the possibility of stomach aches in one of the boys. The boy’s sister told Kelly that “she thought it was his nerves and it only hurt when he was around his mom (Muse).”
On cross examination by Greenway, Kelly spoke of questions about blasting or strong prayer, a technique used by the church to drive out demons and evil spirits through loud groaning or screaming.
Greenway asked if blasting or strong prayer was forced on the children.
Kelly said one of the boys told her no.
“This is something that they would request,” Kelly quoted the boy as saying. “Afterwards they felt relieved that whatever evil spirit was in them was gone. They are not yelling at me, they are yelling at the evil spirit.”
Muse lawyer Ed Hensley later pressed Kelly for more details about her feelings about the situation in the church.
“Would you have substantiated (abuse) if you had known that for small infractions the children had been placed in isolation,” asked Hensley.
“Yes,” said Kelly.
“Would you have substantiated (abuse) if you had known the children for relatively minor infractions were placed in the center of a circle and yelled at by 10 or more people,” asked Hensley.
“Yes,” said Kelly.
Rob Martelle, the court-appointed guardian ad litem for the children, also asked Kelly about blasting.
“None of the children said they had been blasted,” said Kelly.
Martelle asked about the possibility of the children being told what to say in the interview.
“None of the children appeared to be coached,” said Kelly
But Smith, who did the initial interview with the boys, said otherwise.
Smith, who was not going to be called by Hix, instead was called by Martelle who asked the first questions of Smith.
Smith said the language used, especially by the youngest boy who was eight at the time, was not what she would expect for an child of that age.
“They were not speaking like a typical child,” said Smith. “They were speaking more like an adult.”
Smith pointed out the phrase “torments my soul” used by the 8-year-old in describing the visitations he has with his mother. Smith said an 8-year-old normally does not use a word like ‘torments’.
Smith said she later asked the boy what he and his sisters talk about when they are just hanging around at the Covington’s house.
Smith said the boy told her “‘Uhm…Uhm… They didn’t tell me how to answer that.'”
Martelle asked Smith “Do you feel like they were coached?”
“Yes,” said Smith.
Smith said one of the boys was a bit nervous, but both were cordial and open. She said that even though the Lincoln County DSS did not find abuse in the household, something was odd about the situation.
First off, there were 18 people living in the household, which Smith said was unusual.
“Their (the Covington’s) house is huge,” said Smith, emphasizing the word huge. “It has plenty of room for that many people.”
Smith left the house with an uncertain feeling.
“Everything on the surface appeared all right, but I just had a feeling that something wasn’t right,” said Smith. “But you can’t hold an investigation open for that reason.”
Morris testified between Kelly and Smith.
Morris was accused by Muse of spanking of the oldest boy. Morris denied causing injury to the boy and denied even spanking him.
Morris was been a WOFF member for 13 years and is in his third year of law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Three other church members live with Morris and are also in their third year of law school. The others are Josh Farmer and his wife Andrea Farmer and Frank Webster, the son-in-law of WOFF spiritual leader Jane Whaley. Josh Farmer’s father Ray is also part of the church leadership.
“I never spanked (the boy),” said Morris. “I never spanked any child in 13 years.”
Morris later testified that he had never seen any child get spanked at the church.
Morris was Sunday school teacher for the boy, and still teaches kindergarten Sunday school at the church, coming home for three day weekends from law school.
Morris said he never saw the Muse children blasted.
Other students were blasted, said Morris about the children aged four and five in his class.
Hensley asked if the children wanted to be blasted.
“Absolutely, that’s why I give it,” said Morris about the practice he called strong prayer. “They want it, they love it, they ask for it.”
Hensley later asked how a 4-year-old child asks for strong prayer.
“They just say ‘I’d like prayer in this area, I need prayer,'” said Morris, adding that the session usually lasts for about 20 minutes with all the children and himself participating.
Morris also denied that certain other things in the church are not requirements like “locking in” with your household leader.
Pervious testimony from Muse and other former members has alleged that household members are required to let the household leader or someone in authority know where they are at all times.
Morris said that is not the case.
“It is just common courtesy to do that, it is not a requirement,” said Morris who admitted the term “locking in” is used. “It’s just a suggestion to do that to help. Just to let people know where you are and just to open your heart.”
The final witness of the day was Cordes, who finished testimony she began Tuesday after being called by Hix.
Cordes, the sister of Muse, remains a member of the WOFF.
Cordes has been with the Muse children as a monitor at most of the court-ordered visitations with Muse. Cordes said the visitations have been terrible for everyone involved.
Cordes said the Holland household, where Muse has been staying since returning to Rutherford County in December, has been hostile.
“It is constant mockery of how we talk, what we say,” said Cordes. “She (Muse) told people that I was the enemy. She told the manager of the kitchen where I used to work at the hospital that I was the kidnapper of these children.”
Cordes said a voodoo doll was placed on the refrigerator in Holland’s house which had messages on it like “made you look” or “did Jesus tell you to do that.”
Cordes said a lot of the problems were caused by Holly Hamrick, the daughter of the Hollands and former WOFF member. Cordes did say Hamrick apologized to her a couple of weeks ago.
Cordes denied that the church has a dress code and also denied that “locking in” was required.
Cordes said that any time Muse got blasted or strong prayer, Muse asked for it, including the time Muse finally left the church and the entire staff of Kent Covington’s plastics plant blasted her.
DSS attorney Brad Greenway asked Cordes about an incident in one of the visitations that involved singing and the playing of music. Everyone, Cordes, the children and Muse, was sitting on the porch of the Holland house when one of the boys began to sing a church song. Muse, Cordes said, told the boy to stop singing so she could read a book and threatened to bring out a boom box to play her own music.
Greenway asked Cordes if children are allowed to listen to music.
Cordes said they can.
Greenway pressed for more details, asking “If they said ‘we want to listen to Kid Rock’ could they?”
“If they wanted to,” said Cordes.
“But if they had, that’s outside the will of God,” asked Greenway.
“That’s why we’re up here (at the church), to get help,” said Cordes, implying that listening to that kind of music was a sin.
Hensley asked Cordes for details on the concepts of fantasy and reality as taught in the church, asking what kinds of toys are not allowed.
“Things with really bizarre looking faces, things that don’t look real,” said Cordes. “Things that would scare them.”
Hensley asked about whe-ther cartoons and Mickey Mouse were prohibited.
“That’s fantasy, it’s not real, mouses don’t talk,” said Cordes. “We want our children to have things that have a purpose.”
Cordes said she did not want her kids involved in fantasy and the Muse children were not allowed to fantasize.
“Do you fantasize,” Hensley asked Cordes.
“No, I used to, but I’ve had a lot of deliverance,” said Cordes.
Hensley asked Cordes “you wouldn’t do anything to prevent her (Muse) from getting a job would you?”
“No,” said Cordes.
Hensley asked Cordes about a letter she and her sister Suzanne Cooper, also a WOFF member, sent to the Departments of Health in North Carolina and Flo-rida asking both to deny Muse her license to be a nurse.
Hensley asked Cordes to read the letter out loud. The letter said that Muse, because of her past and present behavior, was not fit to be a nurse and was a risk to patients.
Hensley asked why Cordes would be trying to prevent Muse from getting a job in nursing, which Muse has done before in Florida.
“You find it necessary to write the Florida Department of Health so she couldn’t get a job in nursing and you did that because you love her, right,” Hensley asked.
“Yes,” said Cordes, arguing that they were just trying to get their sister some help. “She is demonstrating serious signs of returning to her former lifestyle.”
Hensley later asked about what Muse could do, in Cordes’ mind, to get the children back.
“You just don’t want her around these kids as long as she is not in the church, right,” asked Hensley.
“Yes,” said Cordes.
Cordes said earlier that Muse’s decision to leave the church was a mistake.
“It broke my heart that she turned away from God,” said a crying Cordes. “She just couldn’t get that breakthrough. The whole family saw major changes in her when she came up here.”
Cordes supports the effort to keep the children with the Covington’s though she said she would take them.
“They finally have peace and stability,” said Cordes in answering a Greenway question.
“In fact, they’ll have stability the rest of their lives, they’ll stay there at the Word of Faith,” Greenway asked sarcastically.
“If that’s what the lord says,” said Cordes.
Hensley later asked why Cordes feels that way.
“You would prefer that these children stay with complete strangers, biologically speaking, than with a member of their own family,” asked Hensley.
“I’d prefer they be in the will of God,” said Cordes. “I’d prefer Shana’s heart to change.”
“So right now being with the Covingtons is the will of God,” said Hensley.
“Yes,” said Cordes.
Hensley asked Cordes where Jane Whaley was. Cordes said Whaley, who has been unavailable for depositions and testimony, is in Brazil. Whaley was also out of the country when a subpeona to give a deposition in the case was to be served on her in mid-August.
Judge Pool closed the day by asking Cordes where she thought the children should go if they were not to stay with the Covingtons.
“Suzanne or I (can take them),” said Cordes.
“Anybody other than yourself or Suzanne,” asked Pool.
There was a long pause and Cordes said, “I don’t know.”
Muse has said both her mother and sister Tearie, who live close to each other in Florida could take care of the children. Muse said she wants to move back to Florida and move into a vacant house her mother owns, next door to her mother’s house.
Sep. 11, 2003
Jerry Stensland, Daily Courier Staff Writer