As number of child abuse and neglect cases mount, prosecutor seeks grant for help

By GREG JORDAN

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON, W.Va. — Outside funding is being sought so Mercer County’s prosecuting attorney can hire another attorney to help with the huge number of child abuse and neglect cases fueled by the state’s ongoing drug epidemic.

The Mercer County Commission approved the Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney Office’s proposal to submit a $155,020 grant application to the Hunnicutt Foundation. If approved, the grant funds will be used to hire an additional full-time attorney and two full-time legal assistances to help with child abuse and neglect cases. Mercer County has West Virginia’s second highest rate of child abuse and neglect cases per capita.

County Commission President Gene Buckner said the grant funding would pay for an addition attorney and legal assistants only for a year. The prosecutor’s office would have to seek additional money elsewhere if the new employees are to be retained.

Entities like the Hunnicutt Foundation usually provide grants for “brick and mortar” projects rather than new personnel, but County Commissioner Bill Archer said that he thought it was “commendable” that Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler was willing go come forward and seeking out the necessary funding. However, like Buckner, he doubted that the county could find the money to keep paying for new people in the prosecutor’s office.

County Commissioner Greg Puckett also said that he didn’t believe the county’s budget had the money needed to keep paying for new legal personnel after the grant, if obtained, ran out. He moved that the commission approve the application and it was passed unanimously.

Sitler, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, said later that his office handles a huge number of child abuse and neglect cases.

“We’ve had 300 filings this year of abuse and neglect cases,” Sitler stated. “Raleigh County, which as 30,000 more peopl, had 302; so they’re two ahead of us in filings. Of course, abuse and neglect cases carry on more than one year, so there are more than 750 total cases that are active right now. Those are being handled by a single assistant prosecuting attorney. In Raleigh County, they have four assistant prosecuting attorneys assigned to handle the abuse and neglect docket. So we’re asking for some private foundation help to hire another assistant prosecutor to help with the scale of that work load.”

Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Kelli Harshbarger handles the abuse and neglect cases, and three secretaries help prepare related court orders.

“It’s an overwhelming burden for her,” Sitler said. “She’s done a really good job of it. I’m not criticizing that in any way, I just think she could use some help.”

Sitler said the hope, if his office receives a final grant, is to find federal money that would pay salaries in the future.

“If this is granted we’re hoping that we can apply for some money from the U.S. Department of Justice to fund a more permanent position,” Sitler said. The grant deadline is later in the year. We can’t fill that position now without some outside help.”

The drug epidemic has increased crimes such a burglary, robbery and passing bad checks, and it has added to the county’s child abuse and neglect problem.

Certainly, it’s a byproduct of the opioid crisis, the drug crisis that we have in the county,” Sitler said. “We have an enormous proportion of parents who can’t take care of their children because of substance abuse problems, and that’s what has contributed to an explosion in these cases.

Contact Greg Jordan at [email protected]

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