By Vicki Smith
Law enforcement officers know what to do when they find suffering children in the home of a drug suspect: Call Child Protective Services. But what about when they find an empty car seat, a pacifier or a stuffed animal in a vehicle that’s become a mobile meth lab?
In Putnam County, sheriff’s deputies no longer need to agonize over whether to call child-welfare workers in the middle of the night based solely on suspicion of a threat.
Starting Thursday, the department will enter any drug-related cases where a child’s safety could be compromised into the new Drug Endangered Child Tracking System.
Officers have always been required to report suspected child abuse and neglect, said Sheriff Steve Deweese, but without the tracking system, there had been no formal way to share suspicions and concerns directly with child-welfare workers.
“We just didn’t input the data to make a black-and-white document,” he said Wednesday, “and in law enforcement, if it’s not on paper, it didn’t happen.”
The State Police announced in May it was creating the database to help case workers and to help ensure that at-risk children don’t fall through the cracks of overburdened criminal justice and child-welfare systems. Officers will enter every felony drug arrest, and child-welfare workers can log in to look for cases that may not already be on their radar.
The system is not accessible to the public.
Sara Whitney, an investigator in the Putnam County prosecutor’s office, said it doesn’t replace traditional mandatory reporting but is “just another avenue to share information.”
“Law enforcement does a great job of identifying kids — if they’re there. But sometimes, you may not know there are children involved,” she said. “A lot of these kids come and go from relatives or neighbors, and it may be that when law enforcement interacts with the parents, they are somewhere else.
“By including all felony arrests,” Whitney said, “that’s going to give CPS a heads up that, ‘Hey, we’ve arrested Mom or Dad’ or whatever.”
While the system was supposed to go live July 1, Deweese said Putnam County needed a little more time to work out the logistics.
Cpl. Brian Humphreys said the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Department is meeting next week to do the same and will start entering data soon. Already, though, two victims’ advocates regularly scan reports looking for cases that might involve children and flagging them for CPS.
Now, that information will be in a specific place in the paperwork, noted in a uniform manner.
“If someone is a frequent arrestee, if someone has a drug habit or some other problem in their life, this gives us a way of documenting it without overburdening the system,” Humphreys said.
Sometimes, the need to remove children is clear and immediate. In those cases, deputies still call CPS. But sometimes, Humphreys said, the cases can wait, so the tracking system will avoid those late-night calls.
State Police hope the tracking system will eventually be used statewide.
A report released last fall found that children are dying from abuse and neglect at a higher rate in West Virginia than in any other state, a problem judges, social workers and others say is fueled by rampant substance abuse.
While abuse and neglect reports have fallen nationally for five straight years, the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System found West Virginia had the highest death rate at 4.16 children per 100,000 in 2011. That was slightly ahead of Louisiana and Oklahoma.
Cases of child abuse and neglect have been clogging the criminal court system, accounting for as much as 40 percent of a judge’s time in some circuits.
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.