Rutherfordton -- The custody dispute over the children of Shana Muse is one step closer to a conclusion after the Department of Social Services won a judgment in its abuse case and a hearing over what will happen to the children began.
Judge Randy Pool -- a surprise last-minute replacement for Judge Laura "Suzy" Bridges -- ruled, without a trial, that the Muse children had been abused during the time Shana Muse and the children resided in a Word of Faith Fellowship home.
The DSS case was brought against Muse in an effort to gain control of the children who are still in the church under the the physical custody of Kent and Brooke Covington, a high-ranking family in the folds of the Spindale-based WOFF. Kent Covington is a minister in the church.
Muse left the children with the Covingtons last September after the children refused to leave the church becausse they were afraid they were "going to hell" if they left.
Muse eventually sought help from the Ohio-based Wellspring Retreat, which does exit counseling for cult members.
She later returned to Rutherford County to get her children back from the Covingtons, who are now seeking full custody of the children.
"I am so relieved that something is finally started in this case," said Muse. "I feel a step closer to being reunited with my children."
Muse said she was very happy to have Pool on the stand today.
"At this point, I feel like I've got a fair judge," said Muse after the hearing.
Pool decided that Muse's admission that she had abused the children while a member of the WOFF was sufficient to move to the disposition phase of the DSS proceeding.
The decision avoided a trial over whether or not the current WOFF environment and/or the Covington household is abusive to the Muse children.
The disposition phase will now determine the most appropriate action to take in the care of the children, two boys and two girls, who range in age from 9 to 16.
Muse was the first witness called to stand by DSS attorney Brad Greenway for the disposition phase. The day ended with Muse still on the stand with the Covington's attorney Tom Hix cross examining Muse.
The hearing will resume when a courtroom and an open date for Judge Pool can be matched up. The next scheduled DSS court date is Tuesday, Sept. 2, but the case will likely be put on the schedule before that day.
"I'm am pleased that we are making progress in this case," said Ed Hensley, Muse's attorney who is based in Canton.
Hensley said the law now mandates that the primary driving force behind the case is to reunite the children with their mother, though it will be a long, step-by-step process monitored by DSS.
Muse's testimony was compelling as she spelled out the controlling nature of the WOFF environment, which included control by her own sister.
Greenway questioned Muse who calmly recalled her time in the church and how the increasingly controlling aspects of life there fed her desire to leave.
Muse left the church last September and tried to take her children with her. The children, Muse testified, were so traumatized by being taken away from the WOFF that they began screaming, "We're going to die, we're going to hell."
The children believed that if they left the folds of the WOFF, they would be committing a sin and would go to hell for it, Muse explained.
"They never said they feared me, they were afraid of going to hell and they thought I was taking them to hell," said Muse. "I had a great fear inside me that I was going straight to hell when I left there."
Muse decided it was best for the children to stay within the church, but she still had to get out. Muse said she left the children with the Covingtons instead of her sister because she felt Kent Covington would be kinder to her children than her sister had been.
Muse said she left the church because, "I couldn't take being controlled by human beings anymore. I want God to control my life."
Muse entered the church originally to try to straighten her life out after serving a 30-day jail sentence in Florida for passing bad checks and after several years of drug use.
Muse lived in the home of her sister, Suzanne Cooper, from April 2000 to September 2002. There were 19 people living the house headed by her sister.
The hierarchical structure of the church put a single person in charge of each house, who then report up the ladder to the church co-founder Jane Whaley, Muse said.
"She (Cooper) had complete control over me and my children," said Muse. "We were told what to eat, where we went, what to wear and were even told we could not hit the snooze bar on our alarm clock."
Muse testified that children were severely disciplined for such minor transgressions as making fake engine noises while playing with toy cars, running and jumping on the bed, and any questioning of an adult's decision.
Prohibited items included television, radios, watching fireworks, books which were not directly approved by the church school, numerous games, football and skateboarding.
Muse said the control of her and her children's lives increased over time and was especially bad during the final year before she left in September 2002.
Muse said that in November of 2000, Jane Whaley "heard from God that birthdays and holidays were the devil" and celebrations of those days have been prohibited since.
Punishment for offenses usually involved spanking for children. Both adults and children were subjected to blasting and isolation, referred to as church discipline.
Blasting is believed by WOFF to remove demons from an individual through a screaming prayer directed at the individual who is seated in the center of numerous church members.
Muse said blasting was done "constantly" including at church, at work and in the home. Muse worked for Kent Covington's Diverse Corporate Technologies for most her time in the church.
All aspects of a person's life were subject to church oversight and Cooper, Covington and others reported any transgressions up the chain of command, Muse said.
Muse said, on numerous occasions, she was forced by Cooper and others to spank her own children. Muse said Cooper instructed her at least three times a week to corporally punish the children.
"It caused me a lot of frustration to have to spank them for doing things I did not morally object to," testified Muse.
The children were also punished regularly at school, though those occasions decreased over time as the children learned what would and would not be allowed.
In either January or February of 2001, Muse noticed a bruise on one of her son's knees. The boy had been spanked by church member Mark Morris, she testified. Morris told Muse that the boy may have fallen and hit his knee during the spanking.
Muse testified that she and her children were regularly subjected to blasting and church discipline through isolation. Muse said she was isolated four or five times while there.
She was placed on church discipline once for telling co-workers and her sister about the anthrax scare that happened after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Hix's cross examination, which is not complete, centered on the lifestyle Muse led prior to entering the WOFF.
Muse admitted, as she had done previously, that she had done drugs as had the father of two of her children.
Thursday's hearing began with one of the Covington's attorneys, Frank Jackson of Hendersonville, asking that the case be continued because he did not have enough notice of a change in an expert witness Greenway intended to call.
Pool said he would rule on that issue when the time came, but since the witness (Dr. Ron Burks from Wellspring) did not testify Thursday, the point is now moot.
Burks is the clinical director of Wellspring and a licensed clinical counselor specializing in religious cults.
After a recess, Pool returned to announce the judgment that there was abuse of the children and he would proceed to disposition, to which Hix objected.
The abuse that was alleged in the original DSS petition all took place before Muse left the church and before the children were left with the Covington's.
Pool said that anything that has taken place since Sept. 18, 2002, was not necessarily relevant to determining the alleged abuse against Muse. That timeframe limitation ruled out any evidence Hix wished to present about the current treatment of the children, at least in the adjudication phase of the hearing.
Muse's children were not present in the courtroom after the parties agreed that any witnesses should be sequestered while other testimony was heard.
"It did make it a little easier," said Muse about testifying without the children present. "I'm not proud of my past and didn't want them to relive it."