Kanawha judge rebukes prosecutor’s office for holding up child abuse and neglect cases

“I’ve been working for two-and-half years to find a solution,” the judge told attorneys

By: - October 17, 2023 2:12 pm

The Kanawha County Judicial Building located at 111 Court St. in Charleston, W.Va. (Amelia Ferrell Knisely | West Virginia Watch)

A Kanawha County circuit judge is demanding that the county prosecutor’s office timely and accurately address child abuse and neglect cases, saying the attorneys’ lack of attention has held up cases. Child adoptions have been delayed, the judge stressed. 

There are more than 800 active child abuse and neglect cases in the state’s most populated county, according to Judge Maryclaire Akers.

She addressed County Prosecutor Charles Miller on Tuesday morning in her courtroom. Some assistant county prosecutors were also present. 

Judge Maryclaire Akers (West Virginia Judiciary photo)

“I’ve been working for two-and-half years to find a solution,” said Akers, who was appointed to her position by Gov. Jim Justice in 2021. “At one point, 121 orders were missing.”

There have been long-standing issues with case delays because of prosecutors’ inaction or failure to accurately prepare orders regarding the future of children’s cases, according to Akers. “I have tried to be civil, to communicate,” she said. 

Miller said that he doesn’t have enough attorneys to competently take on the influx of abuse and neglect cases. 

The prosecutor’s team will now be required to submit original and accurate orders signed by all involved attorneys in an effort to fix the problem, Akers said.

Due to the issues with the prosecutor’s office, Akers has asked Guardian Ad Litems to write the court orders. Guardian Ad Litems are supposed to work independently to represent the best interest of children involved in the court system. 

“I can’t rely on the orders I get from your office,” Akers told Miller. “We are now asking [Guardian Ad Litems] to prepare their own termination orders against the parents [they work with].”

Miller, who declined media interviews, alleged that the court had held up orders — not his office. Akers responded that the claim was untrue, noting that there were no unsigned orders.

During the hearing, Akers questioned if she should hold Miller in contempt of court for a recent written response to her concerns, in which he said his office wasn’t responsible for the orders.

Your response, Mr Miller, which I think you thought was clever, was that you just wouldn’t answer me,” Akers said.

In the order, submitted Oct. 16, Miller wrote, “the Prosecuting Attorney’s office shares the same goals as the Court: to make sure that the children of Kanawha County are protected and that these matters are handled expediently. Nonetheless, casting aspersions on the public servants-who are working hard to protect these children seems counterproductive to that shared goal.”

“The court inherited a mess,” he said on Tuesday in court. “We want to work vigorously to clean that mess up … I can’t just wave a magic wand and bring competent attorneys in.”

On Monday, a Berkeley County judge told lawmakers that the Eastern Panhandle is understaffed with attorneys who can handle child abuse and neglect cases.

The already-stressed child welfare system in the Eastern Panhandle has a backlog of 400 abuse and neglect referrals to be investigated by Child Protective Services.

State lawmakers indicated they may consider raising the pay rate for attorneys who take on child abuse and neglect cases. 

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 nonprofit advocated for the state to tighten its legal standards for abuse and neglect to make sure that poverty or substance use are not the only reason for removal.


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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.