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In wake of teen’s death, lawmakers describe balance of public information and safeguarding criminal case

West Virginia lawmakers want to know more about the state’s handling of a neglect case where a 14-year-old girl wound up dying, but they say they understand there’s a balance while criminal charges proceed.

“Let me first acknowledge what a tragic and senseless death this is. We’re all trying to figure out what happened to this child and not just her, but her and many other children in West Virginia that are dying unnecessarily,” House Health Chairwoman Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said in an interview with MetroNews reporter Carrie Hodousek.

“So I know we all have the same goal, and we’re probably going about it in different ways. But everyone feels that they want to try to make sure there’s no errors or gaps in services where these things are happening.”

Fourteen-year-old Kyneddi Miller of Boone County was found dead — “emaciated to a skeletal state” — on the bathroom floor of her home. Her mother and grandparents have been charged with felony child neglect causing death.

According to investigators, the teen had not attended school since late 2019 or 2020 and hadn’t been outside the house more than a couple of times in the last four years.

“It seems like there were huge gaps in time where no one laid eyes on this child, the school included,” Summers said.

Questions have swirled about whether state agencies provided oversight that could
have saved her life.

Gov. Jim Justice on April 23 told reporters that child protective services had “no idea” about the girl’s living conditions — “no idea whatsoever.”

On May 8, the governor said the opposite was true. “I don’t dodge any questions … Will I stand behind what I said two weeks ago now that I know the information I know today? No way,” Justice said in response to a question from WSAZ television reporter Curtis Johnson.

“What we had happen, and it shouldn’t have happened, we’ve got basically attorneys that are with [West Virginia Department of Human Resources] and they screw it up. And, when they give us information, then we’ve got to act on the information they give us.”

A West Virginia State Police call log and audio from a March 2023 visit by a trooper to the home described “making a CPS referral on it also, that way they can follow up on it,” according to reporting by WCHS television.

This week, the state Department of Human Services distributed a statement saying the agency has no record of receiving that child protective services referral.

“Unfortunately, DoHS never received an abuse or neglect referral relating to the death of Kyneddi Miller, and was therefore not involved in the life of this child prior to her passing,” stated Cynthia Persily, secretary for the Department of Human Services.

“Additionally, we are aware of information suggesting that West Virginia State Police intended to make a referral on this child in March 2023, however, a comprehensive search of DoHS records suggest no referral was ever made.”

Just a few hours prior to that statement being issued, state lawmakers participated in a closed-door meeting with agency representatives to discuss the situation. The meeting occurred after Summers and Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr sent memos to Persily to ask for more information.

“I think the discrepancy between answers that would be given initially when the secretary was interviewed and said ‘there’s absolutely no records’ and then the governor saying ‘there’s absolutely no records’ and then saying ‘OK, well, maybe there are records’ — those types of things back and forth, they degrade any confidence in the processes that are there,” said Tarr, R-Putnam, on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

Without clear answers, Tarr said, this week’s meeting with human services officials and Justice administration chief of staff Brian Abraham was necessary to focus on what the state has in place to protect vulnerable children.

“So what we were trying to get to is, is there a process that is in place that’s not being followed and how do we try to reassure that those processes are followed? Or do we have processes that are failing?” he asked.

Following the meeting, Tarr concluded, “there are things that should not be disclosed at this point because of ongoing investigations.”

“Think of it as for what it is — a murder investigation. If you have information that comes out that could result in the failure to prosecute and hold accountable the people who are responsible for any part of that child’s death for having released such information too early, that’s very dangerous.”

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said the public’s understanding of the tragedy and the state’s response — including the criminal charges — are still developing.

“Any time we become aware of a situation where bad people are doing bad things, we have to do our best to hold them accountable,” Hanshaw said on MetroNews’ “Talkline.” “But what we have to be sure of is that we don’t, in the process, upset a system or disrupt the people and workers who are otherwise doing a good job in a difficult situation.”

Hanshaw said officials discussed in that meeting, “Do we have the right processes in place to make sure we’re adequately responding to allegations like what you have in this particular set of facts?” And, he asked, “If we have the right process in place, was it followed — or are we following it in all of the circumstances in which these kind of facts come to light?”

Lawmakers say Persily has accepted an invitation to address an oversight committee the next time legislative interim meetings are scheduled in August.

Summers said she came away from the meeting feeling somewhat more assured, with a greater understanding of the balance state officials need to maintain while criminal charges are still active.

“I did have a better understanding of their reluctance to share because they don’t want to jeopardize justice being served for that little girl — and what information should you share and shouldn’t you share, and what inhibits prosecution,” Summers said. “So I feel like they’re truly trying to do what’s best for her in the release of the information they’ve been giving.”