RUTHERFORDTON — The oral testimony phase of a custody dispute between Shana Muse and Brooke and Kent Covington, ministers in the Word of Faith Fellowship, finished today with three witnesses taking the stand.
The younger daughter of Shana Muse took the stand for most of the morning and Muse’s sister, Suzanne Cooper, took the stand for the afternoon session.
The cross examination of clinical psychologist Dr. Jeanne Murrone also finished.
Judge Randy Pool ruled, over the objection of Covington attorney Tom Hix, to cut off oral testimony Friday, day seven of the disposition hearing to decide placement for Muse’s four children.
The children have been cared for by the Covingtons for almost one year. Muse has four children, two teenage girls and two boys ages 9 and 11.
Attorneys will be allowed to file written affidavits up until Friday, Sept. 19. Judge Pool will then examine the accumulated evidence and make a ruling.
The ruling could take any number of directions, including giving Muse full and immediate custody. The more likely result, if the Judge decided to remove the children from the Covingtons home, is a blended arrangement involved one or more of Muse’s sisters and her mother.
The Covingtons could be awarded full custody and then proceed with formal adoption. The Covingtons do have not children of their own. Brooke is the adopted daughter of WOFF leaders Jane and Sam Whaley.
The Rutherford County Department of Social Services brought the action trying get custody of the children claiming that the church environment is abusive.
Friday, arguments were presented by witnesses for the Covingtons as to why the children should stay where they are.
The Covingtons did not take the stand.
The youngest daughter, Rachel, took the stand for about two hours Friday morning.
She made it clear she did not want to go back with her mother, but struggled to answer questions of details of church life posed on cross examination by three lawyers and by Judge Pool.
Hix called Rachel, 15, as a witness, and posed the first questions.
“Do you know why you are here,” asked Hix.
“My mom is trying to take us away,” said Rachel.
She said she likes the church and the school.
“I love it (the school),” said Rachel. “It’s not like any school I’ve been, too. They help you, they love you.”
Rachel said she got straight A’s last year in ninth grade and was allowed to skip a grade to begin 11th grade this fall.
Rachel testified she had been spanked seven times in her time at the WOFF since the summer of 2000.
That number was questioned on cross examination by Rob Martelle, the court-appointed guardian ad litem for the children. Martelle had interview Rachel previously and said she had told him of at least 13 spankings by eight different people.
Rachel said on the stand Monday the seven spankings were by four or five people including Cooper and Muse and a teacher Holly Morris.
Morris is the wife of Mark Morris, a third-year law student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Rachel said Mrs. Morris had spanked her between one and four times at the school in the past. Mark Morris testified Wednesday that he didn’t know of any children that had ever been spanked at the school.
Rachel said she was spanked one time for doodling on a test she didn’t want to take. She said she hadn’t studied for the test and started doodling on the test and was spanked by Holly Morris. The spanking was “one pop,” Rachel said.
Rachel talked about church discipline, now called discipleship. Discipleship is a time when “you just go in there to get a hold of what you did wrong” said Rachel. The time is spent watching videos of sermons, reading the Bible and doing homework, according to Rachel.
She said “she liked it” even though it was a form of punishment.
Hix asked Rachel where she wanted to stay and she said with the Covingtons.
“Because they love me, I feel like they are there for me,” she said. “I feel like I have a mom and dad now. I feel like my brothers are safe now.”
On the first cross examination, DSS attorney Brad Greenway asked Rachel about an incident Muse testified earlier about when Cooper told Muse to spank Rachel.
Muse testified previously that she did not spank Rachel, but told her to scream out like she was being spanked.
Rachel said her mother didn’t tell her to scream out but “she just told me she was going to hit the bed.”
Later Friday, Cooper denied ever telling Muse to spank Rachel.
For most of the cross examinations and for questions from Judge Pool, Rachel became very quiet and answered in a very soft voice, usually after a long pause. To some questions she didn’t say anything at all.
Judge Pool spent over 20 minutes asking Rachel questions about life at the Cooper and Covington homes and at the church.
Pool asked if she had to get permission to use the phone. Rachel said “yes.”
He then asked her if there was ever a time when she used the phone without permission. She said “No.”
Rachel said she didn’t want to make phone calls.
“I have a 16-year-old daughter, your telling me you never wanted to make a phone call,” Pool asked the 15-year-old.
Rachel didn’t answer, and appeared very uncomfortable.
“Are there restrictions on what you can read,” asked Pool.
“We can’t read magazines or newspapers,” said Rachel after getting the question twice.
Pool asked what it was in those magazines and newspapers that was bad.
“There are things in there that aren’t right,” she said.
“Like what,” asked Pool.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Are you allowed to watch television,” asked Pool.
“No,” said Rachel.
“Who made that rule,” asked Pool.
“The church,” said Rachel.
“Are you allowed to listen to the radio,” asked Pool.
“No,” said Rachel.
“What is wrong with what is on the radio, is it the news or the music,” asked Pool.
Rachel said the music. Pool asked why.
“It has nothing to do with God,” said Rachel after a long pause.
“Do you like music,” asked Pool.
“Yes,” said Rachel.
“What kind of music,” asked Pool.
“The music we have at church,” said Rachel.
“Can you listen to classical or jazz, are you allowed to listen to those types of music,” asked Pool.
“No,” she said.
Pool then asked question about her school work and church discipline or discipleship.
“Do you have an art class at the Word of Faith school,” asked Pool.
“Yes,” said Rachel.
Pool asked what they do in art class.
“You look at a picture and you draw it,” said Rachel.
“Do you have an art appreciation class where you look a pieces of art,” asked Pool.
“No,” said Rachel.
The first witness of the day was the cross examination continued from Thursday of Murrone.
Murrone repeated her adamant conclusion that the children will suffer serious psychological damage if they are removed from their current environment.
“The children spontaneously told me over and over how happy they are in their current situation,” said Murrone on questions from Muse attorney Ed Hensley.
Murrone said she believes a traditional public school classroom would not benefit any of the children, each of whom have some issues that would be best addressed in a small classroom with one-on-one instruction.
Martelle asked about whether the children would qualify for and Individual Educational Program (IEP) based on their status.
Murrone said definitely for one of the children and maybe on two of the other three, though she had not completed her evaluation of those children.
Martelle and Murrone agreed that children designated at IEP children are mandated to be placed in different educational settings to address their issues. Murrone said that while the requirement may be true, the practice fell short of the requirement.
Judge Pool asked Murrone a series of hypothetical questions based on previous testimony.
Murrone had stated she only examined the children and had just begun to assess the school.
Pool said he was not passing judgment on the testimony in his questions, but was simply summarizing some of the claims made.
Pool asked if Murrone’s opinion on the educational environment of the children would change if she knew the children had been spanked three or four times a week in school.
Murrone said “yes.”
Pool asked if she were made aware that the children were placed on church discipline or isolation where they were not allowed to talk to their peers for days or weeks of that would change her opinion.
Murrone said “yes.”
Pool asked if she were made aware that the children were subject to a strong prayer that included being surrounded by as many as 20 people who yell or groan loudly very close to their face if that would change her opinion.
Murrone said “yes.”
On redirect, Frank Jackson, a second lawyer for the Covingtons asked Murrone if the children perceived the strong prayer as a beneficial thing if it would be harmful.
“As long as they understood that, it would be okay,” said Murrone.
Jackson later asked a follow up question after a question from Hensley.
“If the children had been exposed to prolonged isolation, inappropriate strong prayer or abusive corporal punishment would that have shown up on your tests,” asked Jackson.
“Yes,” said Murrone.
Another follow up question about the strong prayer prompted another clarification by Murrone.
“If it occurred to them, they are not showing any signs of that,” said Murrone.
The final witness of this phase of the proceeding was Cooper, who is Muse’s oldest sister and has been an active WOFF members for over 10 years.
Muse stayed with Cooper for two and half years before Muse left the church last September.
Cooper repeated many of the same stories that her sister Cindy Cordes and Muse’s two daughters told about Muse’s behavior both prior to coming to WOFF and the time Muse spent in the church.
Cooper said Muse was regularly abusive to the children, even after moving into Cooper’s home in 2000.
Cooper said the children came to her, rather than their mother, for everything.
Cooper believes that the homes of either her mother or her sister Tearie would not be good placed for the children to go if they cannot stay with the Covingtons.
“If the court did not recognize the family relationship with Brooke and Kent then I would want custody,” said Cooper. “This is the first time in their lives they feel like they have a family.”
Cooper said she, along with Muse, considered taking their families and leaving the church in May 2001.
“We (my husband Rick) had some questions about some doctrine too,” said Cooper, alluding the Muse’s concerns.
Cooper later said the questions were based on the Baptist background of both her and Rick.
“We just had questions about women’s ministry and their role,” said Cooper.
On cross examination, Hensley asked Cooper about a waiver the WOFF asks members to sign. Cooper admitted she signed one and included her children’s names on the bottom of the waiver.
The waiver is a four page document in which the church member agrees not sue the WOFF if they fail to have their souls saved. It also includes a passage that the practices at the WOFF are not mind control.
Key passages of the waiver read as follows:
“That no guarantee or warranty of any kind is made to releasor of to any other pray that demons or devils will be cast out; that their bodies will be healed; that their souls will be saved or that their mental and/or emotional condition will be cured … I also waive my right of any action for money damages resulting from so called spiritual, mental, financial, emotional, physical, social, or loss suffered as a result of any ministry given me … I understand that in some spiritual atmospheres there may be some mind control involved, however, after witnessing the ministry and atmosphere of the Word of Faith Fellowship, Inc., I believe that the pastors and other persons connected with the Word of Faith Fellowship, Inc. do not operate in mind control.”
Cooper was asked about why she believes Muse should not be able to decide where the children should go. Cooper said all the children have stated they do not want to go back to Florida with Muse.
“Do you think that an 8-year-old should be able to make that decision,” asked Hensley.
“Yes,” said Cooper.
Hensley pressed for details.
“So if your 7-year-old son wanted to live with, say, Brad Greenway, that would be okay,” asked Hensley.
“I feel a 7- or 8-year-old is old enough to know how he is being treated and that a child of that age knows where he feels safe,” said Cooper.
Jackson stated for the record that they intended to call the Covingtons, several of Lacy Wien’s relatives, Ann MacDonald, Karel Reynolds, Ann Crummie and Dick Anthony as witnesses.
Anthony was described by Jackson as an expert and that Anthony believes brainwashing is a myth.
The testimony of those witness will be entered through written affidavits next week.