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Children burned in W.Va. fire still in critical condition

November 16, 1999|By JULIE E. GREENE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Two small children remained in critical condition Tuesday night following a Saturday night fire that claimed the life of their brother.

Brandi Howard, 3, and Mason Howard, 4, were in critical condition at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., a hospital spokeswoman said.

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The girl's twin brother, Corey, died Saturday night from smoke inhalation and complications from the 2:43 a.m. fire that morning at their 211 E. Liberty St. house.

Their mother, Sara Howard, escaped the fire uninjured by climbing out on a roof, where she screamed for someone to help her children.

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Martinsburg City Police are investigating the fire as possible arson, said Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely. The police detective in charge of the case was out of town Tuesday.

Games-Neely said she plans to look into having the West Virginia State Legislature change a state law that gives the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources final say over child neglect cases because the department did not remove the children from their mother's custody in June when she was charged with child neglect.

Howard, 37, was charged June 1 with child neglect after Brandi Howard, then 2, was found filthy and wearing only a diaper in the 800 block of Winchester Avenue near the street around 9 a.m., according to records in Berkeley County Magistrate Court. At that time the family lived at 735 Winchester Ave.

Brandi Howard had been without supervision for at least 30 minutes, court records allege.

Games-Neely said she and Martinsburg City Police Cpl. Carl Franklin asked the state department to remove the children from their mother's custody.

West Virginia Del. Vicki V. Douglas, D-Berkeley, said Tuesday that state legislators have tried to make child abuse laws as balanced as possible between children's safety and parents' rights.

"If there's doubt, get the children out," Douglas said.

"In defense of DHHR, we're not perfect and often times we have to balance overreactions and really doing harm to the family versus underreacting and doing harm to the family," Douglas said.

Douglas said child abuse and neglect laws may need to be reviewed further. She was specifically interested in the training of new personnel at the state department since some of the decisions they have to make are subjective.

The local director of the Department of Health and Human Resources was not available for comment Tuesday.

Gov. Cecil H. Underwood said he was not familiar with the case, but "any law that has weaknesses in it is certainly subject to change."

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