Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

W.Va. Child Protective Services needs sunlight

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

Deputies said the children in the shed had been deprived of adequate food, water and clothing or a working toilet. “I was repulsed, for lack of a better term,” said Deputy H.K. Burdette. “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.”

Authorities have charged the children’s adoptive parents, Donald Ray Lantz and Jeanne Kay Whitefeather, with felony child neglect.

Neighbors told media outlets they had contacted the state’s Child Protective Services, but it was unclear whether CPS followed up and, if they did, what they found. That is because the state Department of Health and Human Resources refused to provide any additional information and freedom of information requests were denied.

DHHR cited WV Code 49-5-101 that states such records concerning a child or juvenile “are confidential and may not be released or disclosed to anyone, including any federal or state agency.” But that is an overly broad interpretation of the statute. The requests centered on the agency’s response, not the identity or disposition of the children’s cases.

Now, the West Virginia House of Delegates is advancing a bill (HB 4595) that would break down that information wall. The legislation authorizes the Legislative Oversight Commission on Health and Human Resources Accountability to “conduct proceedings in a confidential executive session for the purpose of reviewing investigations and questioning a witness or witnesses.”

If this bill becomes law, lawmakers could at least find out whether CPS followed up on complaints and then take appropriate corrective action. Maybe CPS investigated, but the adoptive parents successfully covered up the abuse, or maybe the complaints fell through the cracks. Who knows?

At minimum, legislators who have jurisdiction over the agency and allocate resources have a right to know. However, as the bill is written now, it still leaves the public in the dark. The bill states that investigations are exempt from public disclosure requirements.

The bill should be modified so the Oversight Commission is required to report its findings and recommend a course of action. Anything that has the potential to identify the children involved can be redacted.

CPS workers are notoriously overworked and plagued by high turnover. Public disclosure about the impact of those challenges could bring pressure on state leaders to ensure the agency is fully staffed and that field workers are well compensated for what is an exceedingly difficult job.

The information blackout in these kinds of cases only arouses suspicion, while preventing policy makers and the public from having the facts necessary to make accurate assessments about what may be agency failures.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

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