Offering insight into mother’s ordeal

No surprise: the Spirit’s story last week about Amanda Underwood drew a strong response from readers, with just as many prepared to eviscerate Underwood as defend her; likewise Berkeley County’s Department of Health and Human Resources.

Because of the overwhelming reaction, the occasion has become an opportunity for me to do something different — neither editorialize, nor opinionate — but instead offer our readers something that’s not always available, that being a chance to invite you into a conversation about our coverage and explain our efforts.

Underwood’s story — about a young woman whose life had intersected with the DHHR with disastrous results — generated more reader comment than any I’d seen since assuming the helm at the Spirit of Jefferson more than seven months ago. We published the story following an extensive review of the documentation, almost exclusively court records and DHHR reports.

Bryan and I met a number of times throughout the past several weeks to discuss what kind of story we were telling and what kind of story we weren’t telling While the story clearly offered a point of view, it was not initiated to pursue an agenda. Numerous efforts were made to discuss the case with DHHR officials, including the case worker to whom Underwood was assigned, Mary Carper. The department declined to discuss the case with any specificity, citing its own policies. We were never able to make contact with Carper.

Most troubling to us were rulings by 23rd Circuit Judge John Yoder, who recognized that an apparent toxicity had developed between Underwood and DHHR that had muddied efforts at resolving the matter to the family’s benefit, which should have been the focus. Equally troubling was evidence that on a number of instances, neither DHHR nor the court-appointed guardian ad litem had followed Yoder’s orders. It is our opinion that an agency that demands and can order accountability in people it assumes as clients must be held to the same standards. It must.

The story also served as an indictment of West Virginia’s child removal rate. It is worse — far worse — than any other state’s in the Union and that is a disgrace.

A state should not hold in such contempt its own citizens, no matter their socioeconomic circumstances, nor for any other factor. West Virginia can and should do better in striving to make sure that every effort is exhausted before it seeks child removal as a remedy. In our own reading of the documentation that was not done in Underwood’s case.

A number of readers have weighed in on the story, both on our website and our Facebook page. Comments that are critical of Underwood have not been taken down, even if we’ve disagreed with them. That’s what every conversation is all about, and Underwood herself should agree that by throwing open her circumstances to public review she invited comment.

We have taken down those comments, however, that purport to know Underwood’s circumstances but that we have not been able to verify. Until they are verified, they are hearsay. Our own reporting was thorough in its reliance on available public documents and we can’t allow comments to be published that we don’t know to be true.

Some commenters have told us they believe there is more to the story than has been reported, and it might be true that some red flag triggered the initial scrutiny of Child Protective Services. But we also think it’s true that CPS behaved less thoroughly in its review of the case than we ourselves did in reviewing it. From all appearances, rather than seeking to cultivate a resolution that kept the children in Underwood’s custody, DHHR elected instead to force her into competing obligations then ran out the clock on whatever efforts were available to her, ultimately forcing Yoder’s hand to terminate her custody.

We are grateful for all comments, however, even those we have to remove. We welcome every opportunity to have our own coverage scrutinized thoroughly. We strive to be fair and accurate — otherwise, we’re nothing more than a ranting blog.

Please send your comments — critical or otherwise – to me at editor@spiritofjefferson.com I read everything.

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