The Digital Courier, Dec. 18, 2002
By JAMES LEWIS Daily Courier Staff Writer
FOREST CITY — A Florida woman who left her children in care of a family at Word of Faith Fellowship in September says she now wants to reunite her family.
Shana Muse left the controversial Spindale church in September and took custody of her children several days later. Two days later, Muse signed a contract giving an associate minister at the church and his wife “care custody and control” of her four children.
Since that time, Muse says she has sought counseling at a cult deprogramming facility in the Midwest and is now ready to take her children back.
She returned to Rutherford County last Thursday, but has so far been unsuccessful in reuniting her family.
Meanwhile, a Baptist church in Spindale has set up a fund to accept donations and help Muse with legal bills and pay expenses for any others who leave the church in the future.
Jane Whaley, a senior pastor at the WOFF, said on Tuesday afternoon that it was a matter of the children’s willingness to go with their mother.
“If the children want to go, they could go right now,” Whaley said. “They don’t want to go with their mother.”
Muse signed an agreement with Brooke and Kent Covington for care of her four children in September.
Whaley said on Tuesday that the children were OK and remained with the Covingtons.
The Rev. James Daves of Adaville Baptist Church said he and other church leaders saw establishment of the Faith Freedom Fund, something which could not only help Muse with legal fees but also serve as a resource which could one day be used to help others who might leave the WOFF.
“The feeling is that we want it to be more than that (helping one individual),” the Rev. Daves said.
The account has been established as a separate account under Adaville’s tax exempt status to collection donations and a board of directors will be put in place to manage the money, Daves said.
Three years ago, several religious leaders in Rutherford County stepped forward in the midst of a similar custody battle involving the WOFF. The organization held prayer vigils, including one at Adaville.
That custody battle ended with the children’s parents — one of whom had left WOFF while another stayed in the congregation — sharing custody of their children.
Several religious leaders in the community have also stepped forward from time to time to assist those who have left WOFF.
The Rev. Daves said he’s hoping for a different outcome this time and wants to be prepared to help any and all WOFF members who leave the congregation headed by the Revs. Sam and Jane Whaley.
“God is doing something in this community that is supernatural,” the Rev. Daves said, pointing to the recent distribution of the Jesus video, Muse’s situation and growing interest in a revival being planned at The Foundation in Spindale early next month.
Whaley said she was upset by Daves’ actions.
“I’m very grieved that the pastor wouldn’t call me and get the truth … he’s believing something that is not true … other ministers have called and we have a good working relationship with other ministers,” Whaley said. “I’m grieved that he would believe a lie instead of the truth.”
Muse returned to Rutherford County last Thursday and hoped to take her children and leave the area. But she has instead encountered a legal system which she says has left her disappointed.
“It’s frustrating that I’ve gone to the people who are supposed to be able to help you and no one in this town will help,” she said.
Muse’s decision in September to assign her children’s custody to an associate pastor at WOFF left many officials puzzled.
Deputies accompanied Muse to the church campus off Old Flynn Road and eventually to the Covington’s home outside Rutherfordton where the children were secured.
Muse said she made the decision to hand off custody in September because she was “broken.”
“I was homeless, jobless, penniless and carless,” she said last week.
Now, with the help of counselors, she said she has a support network of family and friends in place and is ready and anxious to reunite her family.
In the past few days, Muse has turned to a number of agencies for help, including the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department, the District Attorney’s office and the Rutherford County Department of Social Services.
She met with investigators from the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department late Thursday, but was turned away this time. Agency officials told her she needed an attorney and would have to seek custody of her children through the court system before they could assist her in securing the children’s return.
She went to the Rutherford County Courthouse on Friday morning with a copy of a custody order from Florida but was told she needed an original copy of the document to file any civil action.
Clerk of Superior Court Keith Melton said Muse needed to bring an “exemplified” copy of the order, meaning a document which has a raised seal of the court.
Melton said the rule was the same for everyone, no matter their particular situation, and he could not make exceptions.
As of late Tuesday, Muse had filed no court documents in Rutherford County and was still seeking legal representation.
Muse’s denial at the Sheriff’s Department came after presenting a document signed by two doctors in Ohio who indicated they believed Muse’s children were subject to abuse in the environment created at the Spindale church.
The letter recounts several incidents which Muse relayed during interviews at the psychological care center, including allegations of corporal punishment, loud prayer or “blasting” sessions and use of children to clean homes and clear land.
North Carolina has strong laws regarding the prompt investigation of child abuse or mistreatment claims and even allows claims to be filed anonymously.
John Carroll, director of the Rutherford County Department of Social Services, said Monday that he could not discuss the specifics of any case and would neither confirm nor deny that his agency has been consulted regarding Muse’s case.
Typically, Carroll said, abuse allegations are examined and DSS officials determine whether the claims should be investigated.
“We would not simply investigate because there is a custody dispute,” he said.
Carroll said that the if a complaint or allegation comes to the attention of the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department, the information is typically forwarded to DSS for further action.
Muse said she did not understand DSS’s reluctance to pursue the matter especially in light of their willingness to examine her fitness as a mother earlier this year.
When she left the church in September, DSS workers completed a safety assessment of Muse after someone within the church raised questions about an incident involving her “inappropriate discipline” of one of her children on one occasion.
DSS cleared Muse to retake custody of the children within hours.
When Muse met with representatives of the District Attorney’s office last Friday, prosecutors gave her advice similar to the information dispensed by the Sheriff’s Department.
District Attorney Jeff Hunt said Muse was involved in what appear to be a civil custody matter and he could not take action.
“The DA’s office has no authority to deal in civil matters,” Hunt said.
The prosecutor said he could only act when criminal allegations were made, and so far, no complaints of that nature have come to his attention.