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DHHR actions shouldn't be a puzzle in this case

November 22, 1999

The third of three small children injured in a Martinsburg, W.Va. house fire on Nov. 13 died this past Thursday at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The cause of the blaze that led to their deaths is still under investigation, but given the tragedy that took place, it's time for the state's Department of Health and Human Resources to explain its actions in this case.

In June, the mother of the three who died was charged with child neglect after her 2-year-old daughter was found playing on the street in the 800 block of Winchester Ave., wearing only a diaper.

But although a request to remove the children from the home was made by Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely and Cpl. Carl Franklin of the Martinsburg City Police Department, DHHR denied it.

Now we're aware that DHHR will probably cite regulations dealing with confidentiality, rules that make some sense when there's still a possibility that the family can be made whole again. Unfortunately, tragically, the death of these children means that's no longer the case here. Regulations aside, the only real reason to withhold information on this case is for DHHR to prevent the public from finding out what it did (or didn't do) in this case.

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If that happens, we recommend members of the West Virginia Legislature head to the next session in Charleston prepared to zero out a few lines in the DHHR budget unless the agency is more forthcoming. Or if they'd like to fix the problem for good, the lawmakers could introduce a bill that would force DHHR to explain its actions when a child under its jurisdiction is hurt or killed.

The bottom line is that if DHHR had acted back in June when asked to by the police and the prosecutor's office, these children might be alive today. Why the agency didn't act is something it should have to explain, not only for the sake of these children, but for all the others little ones who are at risk.

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