SPINDALE — The children of Shana Muse were turned over to the Rutherford County Depart-ment of Social Services Wednesday morning.
Muse, a former WOFF member, left the church, but left the children with the Covingtons, after the children refused to leave the controversial Spindale church.
Muse left the church in September 2002 and returned in December 2002 to begin the process of getting her children back.
The Covingtons refused to give up the children.
A custody dispute ensued and was resolved, pending an appeal, with Tuesday’s ruling by Judge Randy Pool giving DSS full custody.
Officials said the children were turned over to DSS officials without incident about 10 a.m. Wednesday at the DSS office in Spindale.
Sheriff’s Department personnel spent about five hours Tuesday in an unsuccessful search for the children and the Covingtons. The Covingtons were given until Wednesday morning to turn the children over without further action being taken by law enforcement.
The Covingtons and several other members of the WOFF, including Muse’s two sisters, were present at the exchange as well as DSS representatives.
The children were taken to an undisclosed location and are expected to remain there while Muse goes through the DSS-monitored process of regaining full custody. That process could take between three and six months and does not guarantee that Muse will be awarded custody.
Muse has four children, two girls and two boys.
An appeal by the Covingtons is expected. The Covingtons’ attorney, Tom Hix, did not return a phone call Wednesday regarding any legal moves. An appeal had not been filed as of Wed-nesday afternoon.
The ruling Tuesday was a result of an action brought by DSS, led by its attorney, Brad Greenway, alleging the Muse children had been abused while in the WOFF church. That abuse was alleged to be, in part, a result of the religious practices of the church which include a type of prayer called blasting and rigid discipline and control exerted over individuals through corporal punishment and isolation.
DSS originally brought the action against Muse and not the Covingtons or the church. DSS contended that Muse’s action of leaving the children in an abusive environment like the WOFF was sufficient for the agency to take custody of the children and to remove the children from the church.
Muse supported the DSS action despite being named as a party in the abuse because she wanted her children removed from the church as soon as possible.
The church has a unique structure in which the vast majority of its members live in large communal homes and a hierarchy of control is in place that feeds up to the top. Sam and Jane Whaley are the founders of the church. Jane Whaley is the lead minister. Brooke Covington is the adopted daughter of the Whaleys.
Judge Pool’s ruling paints a picture of the WOFF in which members and their children are under the complete control of the leadership of the church. All decisions are controlled by church leadership including where children go to school, what they are allowed to read, what music they listen to, and what clothes they are allowed to wear.
Church members are not allowed to celebrate birthdays or other holidays, including Christmas.
The Muse children, like all children in the church, went to the Word of Faith Christian School where they were subjected to spankings, blasting and isolation (called church discipline or discipleship), according to testimony presented in the custody hearing.
Those forms of discipline and/or punishment also occurred in the homes of WOFF members. Those homes sometimes contain more than 20 people living under the control of a house leader with whom each household member must “lock in” before leaving the home.
Members have severe restrictions placed on their behavior including: No television, no radio, no magazines, no newspapers, no music except church music and no dancing. Books were restricted to only those approved by the leadership.
The ruling summarizes those facts which Judge Pool found as credible and dismisses other statements. Some testimony was not referenced in the ruling including that by Muse’s oldest daughter, church member Mark Morris and all of the 50 affidavits filed by Hix after the close of oral testimony on Sept. 12.
The ruling challenged the validity of testimony given by Larry King, an assistant principal at Chase Middle School and WOFF member and by Jeanne Murrone a psychologist hired by the Covingtons.
King testified that children were not restrained at WOFF.
“He (King) denied that children were restrained at WOFF,” the ruling reads. “(That) testimony was inconsistent with other credible testimony in the case.”
Murrone, admitted as an expert in psychology, testified that she believed the children were thriving in their current environment with the Covingtons and the WOFF school. Murrone said she did not know about or ask questions concerning blasting, corporal punishment and isolation the Muse children may have been subjected to.
Murrone said her recommendations would have been different had she known these had occurred.
“But she (Murrone) added that she did not believe these events occurred and the Court believes she is mistaken,” the ruling reads.
The ruling also questioned the testimony of Muse’s youngest daughter regarding the amount of spanking, blasting and isolation to which she was subjected.
“The Court finds, while admitting these things occurred, based on other evidence, that she grossly underestimated their frequency and duration,” the ruling reads.
The ruling states that it would not be in the best interest for the children to be placed with the Covingtons or with Shana Muse or any other relative at this time. DSS has complete control over current and future placement until a formal change in custody is ordered.
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