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Justice admin admits missteps, zeros in on beefing up homeschool laws following teen’s death

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Justice admin admits missteps, zeros in on beefing up homeschool laws following teen’s death

Jun 06, 2024 | 8:43 pm ET
By Amelia Ferrell Knisely
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Justice admin admits missteps, zeros in on beefing up homeschool laws following teen’s death
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Gov Jim Justice's Chief of Staff Brian Abraham held a press briefing on Thursday, June 6, 2024 to discuss findings in an investigation into a teen's death in Boone County. Department of Human Services Secretary Cynthia Persily, West Virginia State Superintendent of Schools Michele Blatt and West Virginia State Police Chief of Staff Maj. James Mitchell also attended to answer questions. (Office of the Gov. Jim Justice | Courtesy photo)

The governor’s administration admitted on Thursday that it mishandled communication surrounding the high-profile death of 14-year-old Kyneddi Miller.

In response, state agencies vowed to make improvements that could prevent future tragedies. Possible changes include beefing up homeschool laws as the girl was removed from public school prior to her death.  

Kyneddi’s mother, who is facing felony child neglect charges, hadn’t turned in the required homeschool assessments to the local school district that could have prompted someone to check in on the child.

“If you want to say, ‘What do we think is a fail in terms of what do we see and what do we need to fix?’ I think this is a fail that we need to see what we can do,” said Brian Abraham, Gov. Jim Justice’s chief of staff.

Kyneddi was found in a “skeletal state” on the bathroom floor of her Boone County home in April. Two grandparents have also been charged related to the girl’s death.

West Virginia State Police shared a document and audio saying that they made a referral to a local Child Protective Services office about the girl in March 2023, and a GPS tracker verified that his cruiser traveled there. CPS, which has been overwhelmed in the state’s foster care crisis, said there was no record of the referral.

The discrepancies in stories, along with state leaders’ stonewalling and combative response to media questions about the case, led up to a press conference at the state Capitol attended by Abraham along with representatives from the state police, the Department of Human Services, the state Department of Education and the governor’s administration. 

Justice was absent from the event.

Abraham pushed back on the assertion that there had been any cover up on the administration’s part in the case.

He explained to reporters that the administration had shared information that “wasn’t 100% accurate” because of ongoing media questions to the governor about Miller’s death. 

“From a political perspective in the governor’s office, we would wish that we could be more forthcoming. Because, I think as you get to the bottom of this and hear more information, a lot of your concerns will be dissuaded,” Abraham said. 

He conducted an investigation, which included interviews with the troopers and CPS workers who could have had knowledge of the case. A formal report was not made available to the media.

Among his findings, Abraham shared that West Virginia State Police troopers didn’t have any reason to report abuse and neglect when they visited Kyneddi at her home in 2023.

“It’s the representation of both troopers that she was in good health, she was unharmed, that she was not in any way malnourished, or did she display any aches about any abuse or neglect,” he said. “ … They did not intend to make a report or referral of that to DoHS.”

He added that he did believe the troopers went to the local DoHS office to make “informal contact” with CPS about concerns for Kyneddi’s mental health. The girl had shared with troopers about her fear of being around people due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he said. 

“It’s our belief that state police went there and made this informal disclosure. That disclosure, again, was not a referral for abuse and neglect. [It] would never have resulted in an investigation and would have, in my belief, not affected what happened this year,” Abraham said. 

Despite that knowledge, Abraham said local CPS workers had no memory of the trooper making the referral. Additionally, an office security system showed no record of troopers entering the building. 

The state has records of two prior CPS referrals involving Kyneddi’s family — one from 2009 and another made in 2017. 

DoHS Secretary Cynthia Persily previously said that those referrals had “nothing to do with the death of this young lady.”

Abraham, a former prosecutor, emphasized that neither of those two referrals contained any information that Kyneddi had been subjected to abuse or neglect.

He added that, in his opinion, there was “a nuance” in the 2017 referral where allegations made against the adult — which were unfounded at the time — that could have been “substantiated and followed up on” that directly involved Kyneddi.

Through an attorney, West Virginia Watch sought copies of those referrals through the Freedom of Information Act; DoHS has not yet turned over responsive records.

State schools leader, Senate president call for look at homeschooling rules

Abraham also pointed to missed steps in the local school system, as Kyneddi’s mother, Julie Anne Stone Miller, didn’t turn in homeschool assessments required under state education law. 

Miller began homeschooling Kyneddi in 2021. 

A FOIA request to Boone County Schools revealed that Miller never submitted assessments showing Kyneddi’s progress. The assessments can be used by a local truancy officer to raise concerns about the child’s status, but school districts aren’t required to follow up on the missing documentation.

“If you don’t do the assessment, you can be terminated from the home school,” he said. “There’s a possibility that there might have been some court conviction that might at least have had contact with her in between 2023 when the trigger was there, and in 2024 when they found her.”

State Superintendent of Schools Michele Blatt said they’re looking at strengthening the guardrails around homeschool requirements.

I think that our 7,000 foster kids in the system is proof that not all parents do what's best for children.

– Michele Blatt, West Virginia state superintendent of schools

“While we know that we have a great deal of homeschool parents that do things the right way to take care of their kids and it’s the best choice for those families, I think that our 7,000 foster kids in the system is proof that not all parents do what’s best for children,” she said. “And, during the pandemic, our biggest concern was that we did not have eyes on some of these students for every year.”

The state’s Republican-heavy legislature, which has strongly backed school choice, would have to approve changes to homeschool laws.

Earlier this year, lawmakers failed to pass an amendment that would have paused or potentially denied a parent’s request to homeschool if a teacher has reported suspected child abuse. Known as “Raylee’s Law,” the bill was named for an eight-year-old girl who died of abuse and neglect in 2018 after her parents withdrew her from school. 

Senate President Craig Blair said in a statement that Kyneddi’s story has “highlighted that our current system of checks and balances has cracks.”

“What has become apparent above everything else is that this child was failed by her local network of safety nets. Through a series of circumstances, she became lost in the system, and she tragically lost her life. As legislators, we have an obligation to protect our most vulnerable citizens, especially our children,” said Blair, R-Berkeley. “ … We will work with the governor’s office, the Department of Education, DoHS and the state police to discuss ways that we, legislatively, can improve our regulations related to homeschooled children to ensure that no children suffer this same outcome.”

DoHS developing a new referral process 

Abramam encouraged mandated reporters, including police, to make all referrals through the Centralized Intake for Abuse and Neglect hotline, which can keep a record of referrals. 

Centralized Intake, the WV Child Abuse Hotline number, is 1-800-352-6513.

Additionally, Persily said the department is developing “a differentiating response system” for referrals that don’t meet the statutory requirements for abuse of neglect but still involve a child in need of help.

Right now, the state can only screen out those calls. 

“There is this middle area, and I will tell you that most often that’s related to poverty, and we do not equate poverty with abuse and neglect,” she explained. 

The system would allow DoHS to better connect families with local support centers for assistance. 

Abraham also addressed allegations made Wednesday by Miller’s attorneys that her constitutional rights were violated when a CPS investigator attempted to “interrogate” her earlier in the week as part of the state’s investigation. Her lawyers were not contacted or present for the questioning.

Abraham explained that a DoHS employee went to the jail to “close out the file” involving Miller.

“It’s been alleged in the court pleadings that that worker concealed their identity and made reference to themselves as a lawyer. That is inaccurate,” he said.

“Now, I can’t find the words to explain how incredibly, in my mind, stupid it was for that worker, to go to that facility and try to interview that person, given what we’re doing here today, and given the fact that they have been in the governor’s office, as recently as last Friday being interviewed about this,” he continued.

Abraham emphasized to reporters that the governor’s administration will no longer be answering questions about the ongoing criminal case.

“We will not be discussing anything about the criminal case. We never intended to,” he said.