By Vicki Smith
Children are dying from abuse and neglect at a higher rate in West Virginia than any other state, a problem that judges, social workers and others say is fueled by rampant substance abuse and likely to grow unless lawmakers get serious about finding and paying for solutions.
Without a sufficient statewide safety net of suitable foster care, adoptive families, in-home services and community-based prevention and treatment programs for addicted parents and their children, abuse victims are all too likely to repeat what they have learned.
“We are headed for a whole generation of lost souls,” worries Nicholas County Circuit Judge Gary Johnson, who says nearly 90 percent of the child-welfare cases he hears involve substance abuse. “We don’t address it until we address the drug issue.”
The Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments says West Virginians are more likely to die from drug overdoses than residents of any other state, and one in 10 adults has a substance abuse problem.
Nationally, child abuse and neglect reports have fallen for five straight years, a new report by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System shows, with the number of abuse-related deaths hitting a five-year low in 2011. But West Virginia, where 16 children died last year, had the highest death rate at 4.16 children per 100,000, slightly ahead of Louisiana and Oklahoma.
Cases of abuse and neglect seldom make news but are now clogging the criminal court system. The number in circuit courts has nearly doubled in less than a decade, from 1,628 in 2002 to 3,354 last year, court officials say. In some circuits, they now consume as much as 40 percent of a judge’s time.
These are just a few:
• D.R. was 2 weeks old when someone in her Calhoun County home broke her arm. She survived 2 months, her tiny body covered in bruises, then died of head trauma. One parent violently shook her; the other failed to stop it.
• S.G. was raped in Wood County by her mother’s boyfriend, a man already facing child-sex charges in Maryland. Her mother knew about the charges and that child-welfare workers had confirmed the abuse, yet she continued the relationship and forced the child to visit her rapist in prison.
• T.B., long neglected, was sick when he went to bed one night in Mercer County. The next morning, he was found with blue lips and a purple tongue. Though his little sister made it into foster care, the boy died of sepsis and spinal meningitis.
• S.J. told her parents she was raped by a baby sitter in the Gilmer County home where she and her siblings had been given pornography, but they let him return anyway. Then her brother began molesting the girl and another sister. The children were removed from the home and separated after the boy was caught having sex with a chicken.
“For every child that you know about that has something horrible happen to them, there are about 150 kids right behind that child whose name you will never know, whose case you will never see and whose face never made it beyond the funeral home,” retiring lawmaker Virginia Mahan said.
Mahan, a Democrat from Summers County, has devoted much of her 16 years in the House of Delegates to child-welfare matters and has co-chaired the Select Committee on Children and Juvenile Issues. But she said legislators have “barely scratched the surface” of the problems facing West Virginia’s children.
Nor do they fully understand them.
“I’ve had lawmakers say to me, ‘It isn’t that bad. I got spanked when I was a kid,’” she says. “This is not that. It’s not that at all.
“So much of our woes can be traced to how we treat our children,” Mahan says. Although some legislators understand the importance of the problem, “I honestly think it’s still not the priority it should be.”
Within the court system, though, “there’s been a realization this just can’t continue,” retiring Supreme Court Justice Thomas McHugh said.
“It would be impossible for any judge to adequately detail in words the horrible conditions under which some children exist,” McHugh said. “It’s beyond the imagination of most people. If the state doesn’t step in now, these children will never make it.”
Troubled kids skip school, use drugs, become violent, commit crimes and often end up in jail or prison just like their parents.
“Legislators have to realize this is a very, very serious problem,” then make meaningful investments in an array of social programs, McHugh said. “What is the life of a child worth? You can put no value on it.”
The state’s Court Improvement Program is doing what it can to help children, strengthening the standards and training requirements for the attorneys who represent them, among other things.
Judges also are taking a hard line with parents, McHugh said.
In 2002, West Virginia courts terminated the parental rights of just 34 people, said Nikki Tennis, director of the Division of Children’s Services. In 2011, judges terminated parental rights 1,065 times.
At any given time, about 4,000 children are in out-of-home care and about 1,000 are awaiting adoption, legally severed from their parents.
It’s a tough call every time, said Judge Johnson, who chairs the Court Improvement Program. No matter how terrible parents are, most children want to be with them.
Years ago, Johnson terminated rights to a mistreated 12-year-old girl.
“She came up to me afterward and said, ‘I’ll never forgive you for this,’” he recalled. Eventually, though, the girl graduated from high school, earned a degree at West Virginia University and had a family of her own.
Her mother later moved to Pennsylvania and had another child who drowned in a bathtub.
Both the courts and the child-welfare system see family reunification as the goal in troubled homes. But often, the parents lack the resources and the support to stay clean. Nor is there anyone to hold them accountable.
“The problem is that the child-welfare system cannot be West Virginia’s answer to drug abuse, and it’s being asked to do so,” veteran children’s attorney Catherine Munster said. “It’s a public health issue, not a child-welfare issue, and the storm clouds really are gathering.”
West Virginia, critics contend, spends too much money on its overcrowded correctional system and not enough on the intervention and treatment programs that could help reduce crime, thin out the cell blocks and build better parents.
The state must invest in community-based treatment both for the parents and the kids, DHRR deputy commissioner Sue Hage said. Schools, medical and mental health providers, lawmakers and others have an obligation to provide the services.
“This is not a DHHR issue. It’s not the courts’ issue,” Hage says. “It’s everyone’s issue and everyone’s challenge.”