RUTHERFORDTON — The Rutherford County Department of Social Services is seeking an outside agency to investigate the welfare of Shana Muse‘s children.
The move came after District Attorney Jeff Hunt decided Friday that his office would not proceed with any criminal charges at this time.
DSS attorney Brad Greenway said outside investigators would be sought because of criticism about the agency’s inaction in the matter.
Hunt requested the agency launch an inquiry following a meeting with the Florida woman.
Muse, a former member of The Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, has been asking authorities for more than a week to help her retake custody of her two boys and two girls, who are now in the care of a church minister and his wife. The children range in age from 8 to 15.
Muse left the church three months ago and signed an agreement leaving them in the care of Kent and Brooke Covington. Muse, who has since sought counseling at a mental health facility in Ohio which treats former cult members, said she signed the agreement under duress.
The District Attorney talked with reporters at his offices in Rutherfordton after meeting with Muse, but he would not discuss his specific reasons for requesting the investigation. He also would not discuss whether he believed Muse had legal custody of the children.
He said even though the children are not in the care of parents or family members, the matter remained a civil issue.
In September, after leaving the church, Muse showed custody papers to the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department and the DSS workers which prompted deputies to accompany her as she took custody of her children. She signed the agreement with the Covingtons, which the prosecutor says has no “validity whatsoever,” two days later.
Sheriff’s deputies, when asked to take the same action last week, refused and Muse has since been seeking help from other authorities.
After the meeting on Friday, Muse met with DSS officials to discuss the up-coming investigation. Later Friday, she went to Magistrate Lynn Putnam to file kidnapping charges. The magistrate refused, telling her she instead needed to file a kidnapping report with the Sheriff’s Department.
A deputy refused to take a report, citing Hunt’s ruling regarding criminal charges and advised Muse to seek legal counsel.
Muse, who said her finances “have hit bottom,” said she would be working this weekend to find $500 needed to retain an attorney who could seek emergency custody orders from a judge next week.
A group of community church ministers, headed by Adaville Baptist Church Pastor James Daves, anno-unced last week plans to establish a Faith Freedom Fund to help Muse and other WOFF members who leave the congregation. The fund and its board of directors are not yet in place.
“It’s obvious that the Covington’s aren’t going to let the children go,” said Muse. “I’m just going to keep knocking. I just want to be a family again like we were before we came here.”
The children said during interviews with reporters at the church Wednesday that they did not want to go with their mother, and the senior pastor at the church said the children could leave if that’s what they wanted.
Meanwhile, Muse says the church has programmed the children against her and the longer the children stay in the church environment the harder it will be to help them.
Several weeks ago, before her contact with her children was cut off, Muse said, she had eaten a meal with them.
“Now they hate me,” she said, referring to their statements to reporters alleging she abused them and did not love them.
Hunt stressed Muse’s fight was a civil matter outside his scope of jurisidiction and he had seen no evidence which would prompt him to launch a criminal investigation. Yet, the prosecutor said he would be receiving a copy of DSS’s findings and it could aid his office.
“The DSS investigation is a civil matter involving custody and placement of the children,” he said. “I think the DSS report will be very useful to us to make a decision about what if any future action to take as it involves these children.”
State law states that anyone who has “cause to suspect that any juvenile is abused, neglected or dependent … shall report the case” to the county DSS director.
But Hunt refused to say what information prompted him to file the report.
“There are a bunch of issues involved, and I’m not going to get into them because I feel like now this case is going down a road that may result in litigation in the future,” he said explaining his duty to limit pretrial publicity.
Part of that information which he reviewed included reports from doctors in Ohio who were involved in treating Muse.
Dr. Paul Martin of the Wellspring Retreat said he was compelled to forward that information to authorities in Rutherford County because it raised the specter of child abuse.
Hunt said that information was part of the basis for his decision.
However, DSS officials had those reports last week and decided to take no additional action, according to the agency’s attorney.
“(DSS officials) decided not to accept that as a report that merited any further investigation,” said DSS legal counsel Brad Greenway.
Greenway said he was the person who suggested that the Rutherford County DSS seek an outside county’s agency to conduct the investigation of Muse’s children because of public criticism about the department’s unwillingness to take action regarding the case.
“We’ve talked to everybody from the Attorney General to the Institute of Government and everywhere else,” he said.
If action is taken on Hunt’s report, then state law provides several avenues for relief if abuse, neglect or dependency of the children is substantiated, including filing a petition to remove the children from their current caretakers.
“Whatever we do for these children has to be done within the bounds of the law,” Greenway said. “It’s a fine line that you walk (when government is involved in acustody matter) and sometimes things are clear cut and sometimes they are not so clear cut.”
Greenway also suggested that civil litigation apart from DSS involvement would be a swifter route for Muse to retake custody of the children.
“I think it’s clear cut to me that the answer to this is in the domestic (arena),” he said. “She could get the relief she wants fairly quickly.”
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