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Children shouldn’t have to die for West Virginia lawmakers to take action

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Children shouldn’t have to die for West Virginia lawmakers to take action

Jun 11, 2024 | 5:55 am ET
By Leann Ray
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Children shouldn’t have to die for West Virginia lawmakers to take action
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Gov. Jim Justice's Chief of Staff Brian Abraham gave an update on June 6, 2024 to the media on an investigation into the death of a Boone County teen. (Office of the Gov. Jim Justice | Courtesy photo)

Last week, Gov. Jim Justice’s administration gave an update on a horrible case out of Boone County where a 14-year-old girl died after several state agencies failed her.

Justice said during an earlier press briefing that Child Protective Services had “no idea” about the child, who was found in a skeletal state. Then he walked back those comments in a press briefing two weeks later, blaming lawyers from the Department of Human Services for giving him the wrong information.

On Thursday, Justice’s Chief of Staff Brian Abraham said the state had mishandled communication with the media and promised improvements to better protect children. They could start by providing records. 

CPS officials say there are records that CPS was called to the same home, once in 2009 and again in 2017, but they have not provided them to the media. DoHS Secretary Cynthia Persily said that those cases “had nothing to do” with Kyneddi Miller, the child who died. 

If CPS is called to a home because of concern over one child shouldn’t the person responding be concerned with all children in the home?

DoHS will not give West Virginia Watch records to show if CPS was called about Kyneddi, or if they visited the home. Persily said in a statement that it was “essential to recognize that confidentiality protocols, mandated by both state and federal law, are designed and implemented” so that people can report suspected child abuse without fear of retaliation.

We’re not asking for information on children, or the names of people who called to report them. What we’re asking for is the information about whether the family was reported to CPS and if CPS showed up.

During Thursday’s news conference, Abraham said that according to the law, CPS doesn’t have to share those records with the media.

Our lawyer disagrees. We’ve been waiting weeks for DoHS to respond to our lawyer’s email to fulfill our records request.

WCHS reported that a West Virginia State Police trooper who was called to the home was worried about the child, and provided an audio recording of the officer radioing in that he was going to make a CPS referral. WCHS also reported that the trooper’s GPS tracker showed his cruiser in the Boone County Department of Health and Human Services — where the local CPS office is located — parking lot for about eight minutes. 

Abraham said that he interviewed the troopers who visited the home, and that there was no police report from the trooper because they said the child was “in good health, she was unharmed, that she was not in any way malnourished, nor did she display any aches about any abuse or neglect.” However, he said the troopers went to the office to make “informal contact” because they were concerned about the child’s mental health after she told them she was scared to be around people because of COVID-19.

He said the trooper found it odd that a child of that age — probably around 13 years old in March 2023 when they responded — would be scared of something like that. 

There’s just something so off about this explanation. In the audio, the trooper doesn’t say informal contact; he says he is making a CPS referral. Which did he do? Do we accept what he said on the call or his memory a year after it happened? 

If the trooper was worried enough to tell CPS, why did he not make a formal report? And if he wasn’t making a formal report, what did he expect CPS to do? Did he not share his concerns with the family? Did the family ignore his concerns, and that’s why he decided to go to CPS? Wouldn’t a parent ignoring a child’s mental health issues be something CPS should be concerned about? CPS told Abraham there is no record of the trooper stopping in the office.

One positive that may come from this horrible situation is that lawmakers agree there needs to be better oversight of children who are homeschooled. 

Kyneddi had been homeschooled since 2021, but a public records request to Boone County Schools showed that her mother, Julie Anne Stone Miller, never submitted any assessments that showed Kyneddi’s progress. 

Truancy officers can use those records to raise concerns about a child’s status, but school districts aren’t required to follow up on the missing documentation.

One more time — school districts in West Virginia are not required to follow up if a homeschooled child’s assessments are never, ever turned in. 

The state board of education is looking at strengthening the guardrails around homeschool requirements, said the State Superintendent of Schools Michele Blatt.

Remember just a few months ago when Democratic lawmakers tried to strengthen homeschooling guardrails? Raylee’s Law, which would stop children from being removed from schools to be homeschooled if a child abuse or neglect investigation was made by a teacher or school personnel, was not passed.  

Raylee’s Law was named after 8-year-old Raylee Browning, who died from abuse and neglect in 2018 after her parents removed her from school, even though staff at her elementary school had notified CPS of potential abuse. 

The handling of this Boone County case keeps getting more and more wild. I didn’t even get into half of it. But we — and many other news outlets — are covering this because the state continues to fail children. Not, as Abraham claimed at Thursday’s press conference, to “feed interest” and create content. 

We’re holding the government accountable, and West Virginians should be interested in that and aware of how many children keep dying because they fall through the cracks that lawmakers could easily close, but refuse to because they worry the system will be abused.

I’d rather the system be abused than children.