BACK PEW: The hard truth about child deaths in WV

By Stephen Baldwin

Kyneddi Miller, a 14-year old girl from Boone County, was found dead and in a “skeletal state” inside her home this past April. Her mother and grandparents have been charged with felony neglect. She’d been homeschooled since 2019, and, according to reporting, had little connection to the world outside her home. 

The situation received widespread media coverage, with outrage stretching from child advocates, all the way to reporters. People understandably wonder, “How could this happen?” 

The hard truth–that no one wants to hear, let alone say–is that this isn’t the first time such an awful thing has happened. 

In December 2020, four children died in Williamsburg after being shot and killed, and their bodies disposed of in a house fire. The perpetrator was a woman who was the biological mother of several of the children and the step-mother of the others. 

It was gruesome and tragic. First responders are haunted by what they saw to this day, and will be forevermore. 

It was also something people saw coming. Soon after the murders, people came forward saying they’d called the WV Child Abuse Hotline to report suspected abuse of the children. Some of the calls were in years prior and some were in the months leading up to their murder. At least one of the phone calls came from a medical professional. 

But the phone calls were “screened out,” which means the person who answered the phone at a call center run by the WV Department of Human Services (DHS)  in North Central, WV, decided it wasn’t worth sending Child Protective Services (CPS) to check out the situation. Therefore, local CPS and law enforcement never knew about the suspected abuse and never had a chance to prevent the children’s murders. 

I spent years trying to untangle what happened so we could learn from it, make changes, and improve the system for future cases. Bills were introduced in 2021 to automatically “screen-in” calls from law enforcement or medical personnel, but they were rejected by bureaucrats and legislators. Witnesses were called to testify before the Select Committee on Children & Families, but the same bureaucrats and legislators spent the entire hearing talking so that the witnesses only had a few minutes to speak. Then the meeting ended, and they never took action. 

Four children died, and nothing changed. I know, because it happened again. And again. And again, to Kyneddi Miller earlier this year. 

In response to yesterday’s press conference, Senate President Craig Blair released a statement on behalf of state senators. It said, “As Legislators, we have an obligation to protect our most vulnerable citizens, especially our children…We must act quickly to ensure that something of this magnitude doesn’t happen again.”

Act quickly? Blair and the legislature had an opportunity to deal with this exact issue three years ago and rejected it. 

Cammie Chapman & Jeff Pack, WV Department of Health Services.

I know, because I raised it. Over and over and over again with President Blair, Senator Tarr, and DHS staff including Jeff Pack, Jeremiah Samples, and Cammie Chapman. All of whom continue to hold senior leadership positions. They worked together to strip the 2021 foster care bill of all provisions relating to reporting child abuse. And now, they say they must “act quickly” to ensure it “doesn’t happen again.” 

There’s a word for that in my neck of the woods. It’s what you find in cow fields all across Greenbrier County. 

The harder truth about child welfare in West Virginia is that our leaders are more interested in covering their own backsides than they are protecting children. 

Don’t take my word for it. Watch the video of the Joint Committee on Children from December 7, 2021. Read about how they gutted the foster care bill a few months later in 2022. Check out the bill that would have ensured any phone calls about Kyneddi and other kids would go directly to CPS for action.

Senate President Craig Bair and I discussing the foster care bill in March 2022 on the final day of session.

But that wasn’t the only time they could’ve done something. Just a few months ago, the Senate killed a bill which passed the House of Delegates named in honor of Raylee Browning, a child from Nicholas County who died the day after Christmas in 2018. She was sick, and her parents failed to get her any medical attention. They are now in prison. Numerous calls to CPS about Raylee went unanswered. 

This isn’t about the media or the governor or the legislature or elections or parties. This is about Kyneddi. This is about the four kids from Williamsburg. This is about Raylee. This is about kids who need adults to protect them when life goes wrong. 

As a person of faith, I remain hopeful. Even if our leaders fail to act yet again, we can make a difference in our communities. If you see something, say something. Call the Child Abuse Hotline at 800-352-6513. Call 9-1-1 if it’s an emergency situation. Call local law enforcement. Call CPS employees directly. 

When life goes wrong, kids in abuse and neglect situations need adults in the community to protect them. Especially when the system fails them. And the system is failing them miserably.

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