Emily Rice Published

A Winding Search For Accountability In The Starving Death Of Boone County Child

Governor Jim Justice sits at his desk, gesturing with his right hand. Behind him are the American and West Virginia flags. He is wearing a suit with the top button of his shirt unbuttoned.
During his weekly media briefing, Gov. Jim Justice answered questions about the death of a 14-year-old in Boone County due to starvation.
WV Governor's Office

Disability Rights West Virginia filed a notice of legal action Thursday against Gov. Jim Justice, Secretary of the Department of Human Services (DoHS) Cynthia Persily, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and the West Virginia Department of Human Services itself.

The letter was sent to each party and members of the media, alleging the DoHS violated its Child Protective Services Policy and the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in connection with the death of a child in Boone County, W.Va.

History Of The Case

On April 17, Julie Anne Stone Miller was arrested and charged with child neglect causing death after her daughter was found “emaciated to a skeletal state,” the Boone County Sheriff’s Office told Eyewitness News. She has pleaded not guilty to the charge.

Deputies responded to a death call in Morrisvale, Boone County that morning and found the girl, later identified as 14-year-old Kyneddi Miller, on the bathroom floor on a foam pad.

According to the complaint, she had an eating disorder for several years. The child’s grandmother was interviewed as part of the investigation and told deputies the girl had not attended school or left the house, except possibly two times, in the last four years.

The grandmother also said the child had not been eating for months, and was unable to function on her own for four to five days prior to her death due to her physical state.

On May 20, Kyneddi’s grandparents, Donna and Jerry Stone, who shared the home with Kyneddi and her mother, were arrested and charged with child neglect causing death.

Was CPS Involved Or Not? A Timeline Of Seeking Accountability.

After the news of Kyneddi’s death broke, media outlets across the state began asking questions of state officials.

DoHS Cabinet Secretary Cynthia Persily released a statement April 22. The press release provided no further information on the case, but cited West Virginia Code that all records and information concerning a child or juvenile that are maintained by DoHS are confidential and may not be released or disclosed to anyone, including any federal or state agency.

The release further cited CAPTA, one of the laws Disability Rights West Virginia now accuses the department of violating, as requiring it to preserve the confidentiality of all child abuse and neglect reports.

“The role of DoHS’s CPS is to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect when the allegations are against a parent, guardian or custodian,” the release reads. “Child safety is paramount in all CPS investigations. CPS policy and Chapter 49 of the West Virginia Code require that any report alleging abuse or neglect of children is to be investigated/assessed by DoHS.”

The statement by Kyneddi’s grandmother, Donna Stone, saying she hadn’t been in school since 2019 prompted the media to ask Justice during his weekly media briefing on April 23 if the girl had been homeschooled and if so, why an academic assessment hadn’t brought attention to her condition.

“I think the answer just got to be just one thing,” Justice said. “The CPS folks, from what I understand, [had] no idea about this, about this child, no idea whatsoever.”

On April 26, Eyewitness News reported that they had received documents through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) confirming Kyneddi started homeschooling in February 2021 at the request of her mother, citing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Television station WSAZ published evidence from their own investigation and a whistleblower on May 6 as part of their investigation into the incident, Deadly Details Denied

Reporter Curtis Johnson was denied documents by the Department of Human Services and referred back to the statement. In the law on confidentiality, he found that the department, in case of a child neglect fatality, “shall make public information relating to the case.” Johnson found that same requirement in federal law.

Johnson submitted a FOIA request for any history that CPS had with the Boone County teenager. His request was denied.

Johnson later set up an interview with Persily where he repeatedly asked her if the DHS had any knowledge of Kynneddi.

“We have no record of contact with this family — about this particular child,” Persily told Johnson.

After speaking with Persily, the station received a response to their FOIA request sent to the West Virginia State Police. The response includes notes from a welfare check on the teenager in March 2023. The trooper who responded can be heard on audio files obtained by the station saying he is referring the child to CPS.

On May 8, Justice walked back his prior comments during a regular media briefing.

“Will I stand behind what I said two weeks ago now that I know the information I know today? No way,” Justice said in response to a question from Johnson.

Justice blamed the DoHS attorneys for the confusion.

“When they give us information, then we’ve got to act on the information they give us,” Justice said.

The Justice administration has said it is exploring ways to legally provide better information to the public. 

“I’ll absolutely direct them to follow the law. You know, without any question,” Justice said. 

Persily said that the administration is also looking to other states to understand their transparency practices. Persily advised journalists and members of the public to obtain and use the critical accident report that is filed annually. 

“That report, of course, has not been reported on in the media,” Persily said. “And we would just encourage everyone who wants to have information about child fatalities in the state to look at that report and the information is contained there.”

However, that report shows limited details on CPS actions, responsibility and culpability. The current report does not have any information of the death of Kyneddi Miller.

On May 21, Persily released a statement refuting the report from WSAZ.

“We are aware of information suggesting that West Virginia State Police intended to make a referral on this child in March 2023,” Department Secretary Cynthia Persily said. “However, a comprehensive search of DoHS records suggests no referral was ever made.” 

Nearly two weeks after WSAZ’s report, Persily reiterated the department had no records of abuse. 

“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,” Persily said. 

In the same statement, Persily said that the whistleblower broke state and federal law by sharing the information with WSAZ. 

“We are extremely disappointed by the disclosure of information relating to those prior matters by an anonymous informant and by members of the local media,” Persily said.

Notice Of Suit

On May 23, Disability Rights West Virginia filed a notice of legal action against state officials and the DHS alleging the department concealed documents and information related to Kyneddi’s death.

The notice demands the named parties “cease and desist from any further violation of applicable law regarding the mandatory public disclosure of information and documents related to the Boone County death, child abuse cases, child abuse investigation and child abuse findings.”

The notice also requests documents and electronically stored information from DoHS leadership computers, phones and tablets be preserved. 

The advocacy group cited the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which mandates that child abuse information be publicly disclosed.

The notice also asked that the agency “cease and desist from any threats, intimidation, termination or retaliatory actions against any person and any DHS worker who fulfills DHS’s mandatory duty of disclosing required documents and information.”

Tension Between Media And Executive Branch

In an incident recorded and published on May 22 by WSAZ, Justice’s Chief of Staff Brian Abraham could be heard yelling down a Capitol hallway, “Channel 3 is banned,” as reporters Johnson and Sarah Sager were working to learn more about Kyneddi’s case.

Abraham can be heard saying, “You’re not very good at your job.” He went on to say, “You are not doing a very good job at all.”

According to the reporters, this happened as Sager was waiting to interview state Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, and Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, about their closed-door meeting with the DoHS and members of the governor’s staff.

During a virtual press briefing on May 24, West Virginia Public Broadcasting asked Justice his response to the filing and accusations of retaliatory behavior.

“I don’t know, the allegation about, you know, threats or whatever, but I want to tell everybody that works in any capacity for me, and this government in any way, that I want you to always be 100 percent transparent on anything, and nobody, nobody’s gonna come back on you for anything, you know, if you’re just being that transparent and telling the truth,” Justice said.

Justice said if someone wants to file a lawsuit against him, they can.

“From the standpoint of the lawsuit against me, well, you know, people can do that if they choose,” Justice said. “But there’s no champion ever, is going to champion more transparency, and trying to do goodness, and help our kids and look after our kids than myself.”

Also during that press briefing, Eyewitness News’ Leslie Rubin and WSAZ’s Johnson said they’ve received multiple reports that the police officer who visited Kyneddi’s home drove straight to his local DoHS office, in person, to make the CPS report.

“There’s an officer that says that he drove, I guess his personal vehicle or whatever, he drove to the offices and went in and made that report,” Justice said. “At the same time, there’s no evidence that I can uncover so far that a report was made.”

Justice asked the public to remain vigilant and asked anyone with concerns about a child to call the Centralized Intake for Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 1-800-352-6513.