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Bill introduced allows committee to meet privately to hear details about sensitive matters

CHARLESTON — Tragic situations where lawmakers grew frustrated while trying to ask questions prompted a bill that passed the House of Delegates.

The bill, HB 4595, would allow a legislative oversight committee to meet privately to hear details about sensitive matters like child protective services investigations or nursing home abuse allegations.

Even though the provision allows closed door meetings, the concept is that lawmakers could gain access to sensitive information, perform oversight functions and potentially react in a timely fashion to adjust policies.

The bill also has a program performance evaluation process. And it requires departments to report to law enforcement within 30 days a death or serious harm of a person in state custody.

The House of Delegates passed the bill overwhelmingly on Thursday, 96-0.

Delegates made reference to a couple of tragic situations as they spoke about the bill.

One was the case of an 8-year-old, Raylee Browning, who died the day after Christmas 2018. Her father, his girlfriend at the time and her sister were convicted and sentenced in her death in 2022. The week-long trial included testimony about CPS referrals that did not result in action.

The other was the more recent allegations of teenagers locked in a shed on their Sissonville area property with no running water, no food, and no adequate toilet and a younger child alone in an upstairs loft in the house nearby.

Delegate Heather Tully, R-Nichols, spoke on the House floor to say she had pushed for the bill because of questions in her community over the death of Rylee Browning, who had been a Nicholas County resident.

“I had constituents asking me about this child’s death,” said Tully, who is vice chair of the House Health committee. “I really felt as though we got stonewalled and we did not get the information that we really needed to figure out where the major issue happened and where our failures happened that resulted in the death of this child.”

Tully said, “I think this is one way to get some more information to make real-time decisions for these children who could be in potential peril.”

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, referred to the Sissonville tragedy when speaking in support of the bill. He said the children there were “locked in a shed, treated like slaves. Neighbors in the Sissonville area had repeatedly called Child Protective Services, and there’s no records of anyone ever answering those calls, anyone showing up to check on these children, who were locked in a shed.”

He said he’s sorry the bill is necessary.

“I do think it’s incredibly unfortunate that a bill like this is necessary,” Pushkin said, “but unfortunately it is because too often we’re trying to get information from many of these state agencies under this current administration and we don’t get answers.”

Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, said lawmakers have a broad role of setting policy and do need to respect the executive branch’s role of carrying that out. Nevertheless, Steele said the bill will give legislators an important oversight tool.

“I’m sure all of you have had constituents come to you with situations that are heartbreaking,” Steele said.

“This helps us get information of these tragic, horrifying circumstances so that we can make broad law that’s applicable to the entire state, but not to act as an executive branch official, to not act as a judiciary.”