CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Cases of abused and neglected West Virginia children are occupying a good deal of the state Supreme Court's time, outgoing Justice Thomas McHugh said.
McHugh, whose term on the court ends with the New Year, said abuse and neglect is now a West Virginia epidemic. He said the cases are also the most important the state's high court now handles.
"It's impossible for me to relate to you in words or you to write how horrendous the conditions are of certain children in our society, particularly in West Virginia, which we're dealing with," McHugh said.
McHugh made his remarks during a two-hour interview with the Daily Mail just days before The Associated Press published articles on the abuse and neglect problem in West Virginia.
The wire service investigation revealed or highlighted a number of disturbing figures:
The Supreme Court sees this, though most members of the public do not.
A good deal of the public attention to the court in recent years has been drawn by industry complaints or by lawyers touting large verdicts. Not incidentally, these moneyed interests also have the most to spend to bring their issues to the fore during elections and even in the political off-season.
After rattling off a list of the kind of cases that draw public attention - multi-million verdicts, criminal cases with large sentences - McHugh said, "all those other cases pale in comparison to the obligation of a court - circuit court and this court - to ensure that the children of this state are being treated fairly."
To McHugh, that's a simple statement.
"I don't want to say 'that's just money' in these other cases we're talking about, but the children get lost in the process," McHugh said.
McHugh said justices meeting in private to review appeals to the court could discuss dozens of abuse and neglect cases in an afternoon.
McHugh said parents are routinely appealing circuit court judges' decisions to take away their children.
"There are days in which I sit in this court - and every member of the court does - we will go over 45 or 50 cases involving children on abuse and neglect," McHugh said. "The public doesn't see this, right? The public doesn't see this part."
During that time, justices are not talking about weighty constitutional issues or intricate questions about tax law or corporate liability. Instead, the state's top legal minds are sitting in the Capitol and reading about children who have been sexually abused or left in homes without food or in beds in their own excrement.
McHugh remembers one case where two infants were put in a bathroom, not let out and fed through the top of the door that had been sawed off for that purpose.
McHugh, who was a Kanawha County circuit court judge during much of the 1970s, said the number and nature of abuse and neglect cases is different now.