Attorney: Public ‘entitled’ to know if CPS responded to calls about kids found locked in shed

Neighbors, including the one who called 911, say they called Child Protective Services multiple times to alert them about what was going on down the road, including forced child labor

By: - October 12, 2023 9:39 pm
The front of West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources is shown between two trees.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, located at One Davis Square in Charleston, W.Va. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)

The state agency overseeing Child Protective Services hasn’t shared records showing if it responded to neighbors’ calls about kids found living barefoot in a shed without running water, a bathroom, windows or beds. 

On Oct. 2, Kanawha County Sheriff’s Deputies found two teenagers locked inside a 20-by-14 foot room in a shed in Sissonville, West Virginia, according to the criminal complaint, and the teens said they’d been deprived of food. Another child was found upset inside the home. 

Deputies arrested adoptive parents, Donald Ray Lantz and Jeanne Kay Whitefeather, on felony child neglect charges. 

“I was repulsed for the lack of a better term,” Deputy H.K. Burdette said Thursday in court, according to WCHS. “As soon as the door was opened the heat from inside hit us. The smell, it made my eyes water. It was terrible. Just the condition of the shed was devastating.”

Neighbors, like Stacy Miller, said they called CPS about what was going on down the road, such as kids being forced to stand in a straight line with their heads down or work for hours on the property. 

“They had these kids working, I hate to say it, like slaves,” she said.

Miller, 33, said she never heard back from CPS, despite numerous calls. “No one ever contacted me,” she said. 

CPS workers are required by the state to look into reports of child abuse or neglect within 72 hours. West Virginia Watch filed two Freedom of Information Act requests for documentation that CPS workers visited the children’s home, but DHHR hasn’t shown that information and did not respond to questions for this story by deadline. DHHR has faced an onslaught of criticism from lawmakers and others for its care of foster kids. In the past, DHHR’s CPS workers didn’t respond to some reports of abuse in the required timeframe, and lawsuits have alleged they’ve left kids in dangerous homes. 

“West Virginians are entitled to know whether DHHR investigated complaints it received about child abuse [and if they] were investigated promptly or it waited months before acting,” said West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley, who is an expert in state public records law. 

“When an agency seeks to keep public records secret, though [Freedom of information Act] requires its disclosure, the public will reasonably assume that it is concealing improper behavior,” he continued. 

Law enforcement, who are trained to spot child abuse, visited the Sissionville residence twice before Oct. 2 in response to calls about the children’s well-being, according to Kanawha County Sheriff’s Sgt. Joshua Lester.  

The police didn’t find reasons to remove the kids during those visits, he said.

Miller and her neighbors, many of whom are her family members, felt helpless.

The kids’ clothes were rarely changed, she said, and a port-a-potty was brought onto the property for the children to use. 

Miller said she first called CPS in May, then made multiple calls following up on her original complaint. A nurse at a Charleston hospital, she recalled calling from the hospital phone hoping someone at CPS would pick up.

“It has been heartbreaking and very stressful for everyone in my family,” she said.

On Oct. 2, the day the children were removed, Candice Hilbert told a 911 dispatcher, “There is a family we have been calling CPS on multiple times … she has two kids locked in an outbuilding. They’ve been in there for days.” West Virginia Watch obtained the call from Metro 911 of Kanawha County.

Hilbert told West Virginia Watch she called CPS once. “I never heard back from them,” she said. “It shouldn’t have went on this long.”

While state law prohibits DHHR from sharing information about children in its care, West Virginia Watch asked for call logs and travel records that show if CPS was aware of the complaint and if they traveled to the home in Sissonville. 

An attorney with DHHR denied one document request, citing the state code that prevents releasing children’s records with few exceptions. The other request, which sought documents including travel records, is outstanding.

“Understandingly, West Virginia law exempts from public disclosure records and information concerning a child or juvenile maintained by the division of corrections, DHHR and child agencies and facilities,” McGinley said. “Information that documents whether an agency has timely responded to information that children may be at risk is not exempt from FOIA disclosure because it does not reveal confidential information about the children.

“The public has a right under the state’s Freedom of information Act to records of public bodies that indicate whether an agency is performing its duties as required by law.”

The Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office documented that CPS was present on Oct. 2 when children were removed. Lester wasn’t unaware if CPS visited the home other times. 

West Virginia Watch sought CPS travel records from the State Auditor’s office, which processes payments for mileage — in the past, the office has shared CPS travel records in response to public records requests. The auditor’s office attempted to fulfill the request but was unable to process it because payments for mileage were tied to individual social workers’ names and not addresses visited. West Virginia Watch wasn’t aware of what CPS worker may have responded to the call.

“At this time, DHHR employees utilize the non-electronic reimbursement process. This limits the ability to search for travel documentation to specific addresses,” said Kallie Cart, the State Auditor’s deputy chief of staff.

DHHR has history of failing to investigate child abuse

West Virginia has the nation’s highest rate of children entering the foster care system.

West Virginia families are 2.3 times more likely than families nationally to be referred to child welfare and three times as likely to be investigated, a new report from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy revealed

The state grappled with those numbers with a chronically-understaffed CPS workforce, though DHHR recently made headway in addressing the shortage. According to state data, 83% of CPS positions are filled.

DHHR is currently embroiled in a class-action lawsuit about alleged poor treatment of kids in the agency’s care, which included allegations of CPS workforce issues and failure to remove children from dangerous homes. 

It was brought in 2019 by a national child advocacy nonprofit and in-state attorneys.

That same year, a state audit revealed CPS workers failed in 2018 to investigate half of all child abuse reports in the required timeframe. DHHR leaders acknowledged the problem continued into 2021, meaning some children were left in dangerous situations. 

The Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office is moving forward with their investigation into what went on at the Sissionville residence. 

The cases are headed to a grand jury.

“They are working with the Children’s Advocacy Center as they conduct interviews with the children,” Lester said. “This is a delicate and timely process.”

“We are committed to completing a thorough investigation on their behalf and seeking justice for them,” he said. “We cannot go without thanking our citizens who remained vigilant and continued calling to report the suspicious activity that brought us back to the residence on Oct. 2.”

Miller said she hopes, as a result of what happened in her neighborhood, that CPS will improve in West Virginia. 

She wants to know that someone with the state will check on kids who could be in danger, possibly preventing another situation like the one that rocked her tight-knit community.

“There should be a way for things to happen faster,” she said.


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Amelia Ferrell Knisely
Amelia Ferrell Knisely

Amelia is an investigative reporter for West Virginia Watch. Her coverage regularly focuses on poverty, child welfare, social services and government.