Justice says investigation of 14-year-old’s death needs to play out

Gov. Jim Justice today referred to an ongoing investigation of the state’s handling of a neglect case where a 14-year-old girl wound up dying, and the governor repeatedly said he can convey very little else about the situation until the investigation has concluded.

Gov. Jim Justice

“Wherever the ball was dropped, a 14-year-old kid who was a beautiful young lady is lost,” Justice said. “Absolutely, at the end of the day if people purposefully did not do their job, they need gone. And that’s why the investigation is ongoing.”

Justice did not clarify what agency or individual is conducting the investigation. His chief of staff, Brian Abraham, later said State Police and the Department of Human Services both are collecting information, being mindful of respective confidentiality agreements.

In response to questions from four West Virginia reporters who asked about the case, Justice did allude to a State Police trooper driving to a local child protective services office to request a referral following a March 2023 visit to the girl’s home. And the governor acknowledged questions about West Virginia PATH, the computer system that would have been used to track child protective services cases.

Last month, 14-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 time in the last four years.

Questions have swirled about whether state agencies provided oversight that could have saved her life. West Virginia lawmakers have been asking about the state’s response, including through written queries and a meeting with administration officials earlier this week.

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.

Cynthia Persily

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.”

Justice responded to a question by WCHS television reporter Leslie Rubin by saying, “Here’s what I know: There’s an officer that says he drove, I guess his personal vehicle or whatever, and he drove to the offices and went in and made that report. At the same time, there’s no evidence that I can uncover so far that a report was made.

“The best thing that I can tell you on what I know right now is there’s nothing that triggered DoHS to go to the house. Now, are we going to continue to dig, and if we find will we make it as transparent can be? Absolutely. But at this time, at this time — and there’s no point in asking me this every 15 minutes because I don’t have those reports coming to me every 15 minutes — absolutely, we will continue to dig and investigate in every way.”

The governor acknowledged conversation about how a state computer system used to track case management at the Department of Human Services as he responded to a question by reporter Amelia Ferrell Knisely of West Virginia Watch. An element of the question focused on whether that system is fully implemented.

“It’s come up,” Justice said. “There will be real improvements that will be made, but it still can’t help Kyneddi. And really and truly, it’s tragic beyond belief. Sure, we will absolutely make improvements and clean up deficiencies.

“But more than anything, what we need to do is if an officer went into an office and reported and there was no followup, nothing else happened, what we’ve got to do is the officer’s got to stand on the highest rock on the top of the mountain and scream loud enough to where something does happen. And the same thing for the neighbor, and the same thing for the relative, and the same thing for all of us until we make sure this never happens again.”

Disability Rights West Virginia announced steps toward a lawsuit over the “ongoing concealment of documents and information related to Boone County death, child abuse cases, child abuse investigations and child abuse findings that federal and state law otherwise requires to be closed.”

Michael Folio

“For years, they have withheld information that’s otherwise required to be disclosed to the public according to federal law. They failed to do  that. And now their story changes. One day they don’t have information; the next day they do have information,” Mike Folio, legal director for Disability Rights West Virginia, said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

“Now the administration and the secretary of human services is effectively trying to impeach a state trooper. A state trooper — there’s a recording that’s been released that indicates a recording was made and that DoHS failed to follow up on that.”

Justice is also under political pressure about his administration’s response.

Justice, a Republican, is now competing in a general election campaign for U.S. Senate. His Democratic opponent is Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott, who this week criticized the administration’s response to the circumstances surrounding the girl’s death.

Glenn Elliott

“Thanks to some intrepid media reporting, we have learned this week that the Governor and his Chief of Staff seem far more focused on covering up alleged failures by Child Protective Services than they had been in making sure that agency had the requisite funding and staffing to do its job in the first place,” Elliott stated.

“The notion that protecting one’s own image and skirting public accountability would trump critical information regarding the death of a child is despicable. It shows the lengths that the Governor and his team will go to to deceive the people of West Virginia.”

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