Rutherfordton -- The four children at the center of a custody battle involving the Word of Faith Fellowship will remain in the custody of a church minister and his wife but will have supervised visits with their mother under an agreement reached Tuesday.
Shana Muse left the Spindale church in September. Shortly after obtaining custody of her children several days later, Muse returned to the church and signed a document giving Kent and Brooke Covington custody of the children.
After obtaining counseling, Muse returned to the community on Dec. 12 and began a crusade to retake custody of the children, ages 8 to 15. On Dec. 23, the Covingtons obtained an emergency court order giving them custody until the court hearing which was held Tuesday. The Coving-tons have also filed a lawsuit seeking permanent custody.
The battle between the Covingtons and Muse became increasingly public in the days before the emergency custody order was granted with each side insinuating the other would abuse the children.
At the outset of the court proceedings Tuesday, Chief District Court Judge Robert S. Cilley chided both sides for feeding media attention to the case.
"This case cannot be won in the (media), but it can be lost there," he said. "I don't like seeing as much as I have seen about this case in the papers already. This is not the way a case is tried."
Judge Cilley noted North Carolina judges were not allowed to issue gag orders but his stern words had a chilling effect on both sides' willingness to talk with reporters.
After some discussions about how to proceed in open court, both sides went behind closed doors with their attorneys to hammer out a new temporary custody agreement.
The Covingtons are represented by former District Court Judge Tom Hix of Polk County while Muse is represented by Shelby attorney Rob Deaton.
During the proceedings in open court, those involved in the emotionally charged custody contest kept their distance from each other.
Muse, along with her sister Tearie Sheffield, former WOFF member Holly Hamrick, a counselor and a few other supporters sat on one side of the gallery.
The Covingtons, two of Muse's other sisters -- Suzanne Cooper and Cindy Cordes, and a handful of other current WOFF members sat on the other side.
After four hours of negotiations behind closed doors, the attorneys emerged with a tattered piece of yellow legal paper which apparently contained each sides' demands and concessions.
The document was then transposed onto a court form and signed by the Covingtons, Muse and Judge Cilley.
The temporary custody order is expected to govern the children's living arrangements until a trial to determine permanent custody. Judge Cilley set no trial date in open court but attorneys would likely need several weeks to prepare for such a proceeding.
The custody order sets out 11 conditions. They include:
Muse will have supervised visits with her children every other weekend from 8:30 p.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Sunday and every other Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m.
Muse also shall have one-hour telephone access to her children five nights a week.
Muse's sister Cindy Cordes is to supervise Muse's visits with the children.
While Cordes is present with the children and Muse during the visits, "she will not have cell phone contact with church members other than family, except in emergency."
Neither Muse nor the Covingtons "shall use any unlawful or improper form of corporal punishment on children."
"No elements of this case, parties or religion to be discussed with children by anyone; no party comments as to the other's religion or lack thereof, and no disparaging comments about one another."
"The children will not be exposed to media and/or deprogrammer by any party."
Judge Cilley said during court proceedings that several cases pending before the Supreme Court of North Carolina could have a bearing on the case's ultimate outcome, should it proceed to trial.
The Rutherford County Department of Social Services may also play a role in the children's future.
On Dec. 20, District Attorney Jeff Hunt asked DSS to conduct an investigation into the children's welfare.
That investigation is being handled by the Lincoln County DSS as a result of public criticism of the Rutherford County DSS' inaction in the case. That investigation was supposed to have begun this week.
Three DSS workers -- and Rutherford County DSS legal counsel Brad Greenway -- were in the courtroom for much of Tuesday.
Deaton had subpoenaed DSS workers and documents for Tuesday's hearing. Greenway filed a motion to quash the subpoena, but no testimony was offered and Judge Cilley did not address the motion in open court.