Rutherfordton, N.C. -- A hearing this morning could help bring closure to a custody dispute that has perplexed authorities and put a controversial Spindale-based church at odds with one of its former members.
Shana Muse is hoping to regain custody of her four children, ages 8 to 15, who have been staying since September in the home of Word of Faith Fellowship members Kent and Brooke Covington.
The Covingtons filed last week for permanent of custody of the children. Their suit alleges that Muse is an unfit parent.
Judge Robert Cilley is scheduled to hear the case at 9 a.m. in Rutherfordton.
In September, Muse left the Word of Faith Fellowship.
When she tried to get her children, her sister, a church member, called the Department of Social Services in an effort to keep the children from going with her, according to Muse.
After a short investigation, DSS cleared Muse, who, with the help of sheriff's deputies, took her children.
Within hours she took the kids back to the Covingtons' home. According to Muse, the children were screaming hysterically, fearful of leaving the church.
Meanwhile, Muse, who said she had had an $8 an hour job at Kent Covington's company, Diverse Corporate Technologies, left the group without money or the security of a job.
The Covingtons, she said, demanded she sign a contract giving them custody of the children.
Earlier this month, Muse left Rutherfordton to seek treatment at the Wellspring Retreat, a counseling center for former cult members. She returned about two weeks ago hoping to reunite with her children and return to Florida.
But, this time, law enforcement officials would not help her retake the children.
Church officials have said the children are free to go with their mother if they want to. The Covingtons have been unavailable for comment, but the children have said they do want to return to their mother.
Based on advice from Rutherford County Attorney Walter Dalton, Sheriff Dan Good determined that it would not be proper to force the Covingtons to give up the children until it is determined whether the contract signed in September is legally binding.
District Attorney Jeff Hunt said the contract would likely not hold up in court. But he said it offered an important glimpse of Muse's mindset at the time she allowed the Covingtons to keep the children -- and makes it difficult to assert that the Covingtons have broken any laws.
When Muse and her attorney, Rob Deaton, tried to file a civil custody order, they found that the Covingtons had beaten them to the Clerk of Court's office.
The Word of Faith Fellowship was the subject of a nationally televised undercover investigation in the mid-1990s. Former members of the group, including Muse, describe the church as a cult.