Missing girl's mom loses all parental rights
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The mother of a 3-year-old West Virginia girl who vanished without a trace in September 2011 won't regain custody of her other six children when she gets out of prison later this month.
The state Supreme Court this week unanimously upheld a Lewis County judge's order terminating Lena Lunsford's parental rights -- a decision backed by child welfare workers and the unidentified father of one of the children.
Neither his attorney nor two of Lunsford's lawyers immediately returned telephone messages seeking comment on the ruling, which identifies Lunsford and missing daughter Aliayah only by initials, but with unmistakable dates and details.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons website shows Lena Lunsford is set to be released Feb. 26 from a facility in Baltimore, where she's been serving an eight-month sentence for welfare fraud.
The high court's ruling notes that the Lewis County court also terminated the parental rights of Ralph Lunsford, whom one of Lena's attorneys had previously described as Aliayah's stepfather. While Ralph Lunsford is identified as the father of "most" of Lena's children, the ruling says one, identified only as T.C., was fathered by another man.
The state Department of Health and Human Resources filed an abuse and neglect petition with the courts in October 2011, alleging the Lunsfords' remaining children were in imminent danger. They had been neglected to the point that some had irreversible tooth decay, case workers said.
That complaint also noted that Lena Lunsford had previously reported to DHHR that her husband had attempted to cut her throat, "yet she and the children continued to live with him."
At a termination hearing in May 2012, the circuit court judge "found that the parents had more knowledge about A.L.'s whereabouts than they revealed but refused to provide that information to the court," the high court wrote.
Lena Lunsford fought for her children, arguing that "evidence was not clear and convincing that she harmed or threatened her children's well-being," and that she appropriately notified police when she couldn't find her daughter.
But the Supreme Court cited witnesses who say she gave conflicting statements about Aliayah's disappearance and noted that she and Ralph Lunsford have "vaguely accused" each other in the 16 months since.
Lena Lunsford's lawyers also argued that the circuit judge erred in deciding there was "no reasonable likelihood" that the abuse and neglect would stop under a court-supervised improvement period.
The DHHR successfully argued that without an explanation of Aliayah's disappearance, "there can be no assurance that the other children in the home can be safe in their parents' care."
Aliayah disappeared Sept. 24, 2011 from a rented home near Bendale. She's never been found.
Lena Lunsford told police her daughter had been ill and was vomiting the night before. Aliayah was in her bed at 6:30 a.m., her mother claimed, but missing when she went to check on her a few hours later.
Authorities have made no arrests and identified no suspects. The FBI has refused to say whether agents believe Aliayah is still alive, but it has offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to her recovery or an arrest.
Lena Lunsford was indicted weeks after Aliayah's disappearance on charges that she illegally swapped welfare benefits for cash five times in two months. She pleaded guilty to selling $114 worth of credit on her food-stamp card for $50 cash and reported to prison last June.
During one of the hearings in that case, a judge ordered her to live apart from Ralph Lunsford after he acknowledged on the witness stand that he had bought and used synthetic drugs called bath salts that are known to cause extreme agitation, hallucinations and violent and bizarre behavior.
Ralph Lunsford also acknowledged in his testimony that police had considered him a person of interest and repeatedly questioned him in Aliayah's disappearance.
Lena Lunsford gave birth to twins after Aliayah disappeared and before she went to prison. They were taken into state custody with the other children. She later filed for divorce.