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West Virginia Judges Face Growing Number Of Child Neglect Cases

WHEELING — West Virginia’s judges face similar problems in their courts — which most often are related to a growing number child abuse and neglect cases and the state’s opioid epidemic.

Judges from across the state gathered at Wheeling’s Oglebay Park this week for the Spring Circuit Judges’ Education Conference, which started Tuesday at Wilson Lodge and concluded Thursday. The conference was sponsored by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and the West Virginia Judicial Association.

The conference take place twice a year, and serves as a place for the judges to network and discuss the mutual challenges they face each day, according to Chief Supreme Court Justice Beth Walker.

“The judges, like lawyers, have continuing education requirements,” she said. “This is the most economical way to have 74 circuit court judges and five Supreme Court justices earn those requirements.

“There is also value in getting the judges together to talk about common issues.”

Networking is essential to judges, said Justice John Hutchinson, the newest member of the Supreme Court.

He previously served as a circuit judge in Raleigh County from 1994 until being appointed to the Supreme Court in December 2018.

“You learn so much (from talking to other judges),” Hutchinson said. “You ask, ‘We’ve got this problem — how do you deal with it?’ You get great ideas.

“You learn as much in session as you do out of session. It’s all shop talk.”

Recent discussion at the seminars has centered on the growing number of child neglect and abuse cases, and terminating parental rights.

These cases have been escalating in recent years as opioid addiction rates have increased.

Another major issue with child neglect and abuse cases is often the father is out of the picture and can’t be located, according to Hutchinson.

“The total goal in an abuse and neglect case is number one to reunify the family if you can,” Hutchinson said. “If you can’t do that, you have to find a permanent place through either through adoption or legal guardianship.

“But if you’ve got the rights of these fathers out there, you can’t do that.”

In about 90 percent of child neglect and abuse cases, opioid addiction is a major factor, according to Walker.

She estimates about 36 percent of appeals to the State Supreme Court pertain to child neglect and abuse cases, and the number has been growing over the past five years.

In 2013, the court handled 184 appeals pertaining to child and neglect cases, Walker said. In 2018, the number was 284.

The justices said it is likely the number of cases in circuit courts also is increasing at a similar rate.

Meanwhile, the judges are talking about ways to help stem the tide, they said.

“They all have some good answers, something to contribute because of their experiences,” said Justice Tim Armstead. “I’ve really learned a lot from listening to those people who have spoken up at the meetings, and talked about what they deal with. That’s one of the benefits of having them all together. It’s good for us to hear what they are dealing with, and what challenges they face.”

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