Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

Why is Child Protective Services hiding?

Earlier this month, Kanawha County Sheriff’s Deputies were called to a home in Sissonville to investigate a report of suspected child abuse. When they arrived, deputies made a shocking discovery — two young teenagers locked in a small shed. Another child, a 3-year-old, was alone in the house.

The children locked in the building had been deprived of adequate food, water and clothing or a working toilet. “I was repulsed for lack of a better term,” Deputy H.K. Burdette said. “As soon as the door was opened, the heat from inside hit us. The smell … it was terrible. Just the condition of the shed was devastating.”

The children’s adoptive parents, Donald Ray Lantz and Jeanne Kay Whitefeather, were not home when police came. They arrived several hours later and were arrested. They are now in jail on felony child neglect charges.

Media talked with neighbors who said they had called the state office of Child Protective Services (CPS) to complain, but nothing happened. West Virginia Watch reporter Amelia Ferrell Knisely contacted neighbor Stacy Miller who said she called CPS numerous times, but “No one ever contacted me.”

West Virginia Watch also reported that on the day the children were removed, Candice Hilbert called 911 and said, “There is a family we have called CPS on multiple times … she has two kids locked in an outbuilding. They’ve been in there for days.”

West Virginia Watch, MetroNews and other media have followed up with CPS for more information, but all requests about how the agency handled the complaints have been denied. The agency insists that it is prohibited by state law from releasing details of its cases.

“WV Code 49-5-101 prohibits the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) from providing any information on children,” the agency said in a statement.

The media are not asking for information about the children; they want to know what the agency did or did not do. The law referenced by DHHR is intended to protect children, not the agency, from public disclosure.

While we’re quoting state code, consider 29B-1-1: “Government is the servant of the people, and not the master of them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

In fairness, as I have noted many times, our state’s CPS workers have extremely difficult jobs. They are typically underpaid and overworked. There are usually many vacancies, which increase the caseload of staff. We require them to go into difficult and sometimes dangerous homes to ensure children are safe from abuse and, when necessary, remove children from unsafe conditions.

Notably, on its website CPS encourages citizens to call when they suspect abuse or neglect using the 24/7 hotline at 800-352-6513. The agency is required by law to follow up within 72 hours. The anecdotal reports suggest CPS didn’t do that in this case, but who knows?

Maybe CPS workers did visit the Sissonville house and the adoptive parents were able to cover up the abuse. Or maybe CPS dropped the ball. Either way, the public has a right to know. If there was a failure related to a staffing shortage, then that is important information for public policymakers.

DHHR’s insistence on hiding behind its overly broad interpretation of state law serves no purpose other than to fuel suspicion about what the agency does not want the public to know.

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.