MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Law enforcement officers know what to do when they find suffering children in the home of a drug suspect: Call Child Protective Services. But what about when they find an empty car seat, a pacifier or a stuffed animal in a vehicle that's become a mobile meth lab?
In Putnam County, sheriff's deputies no longer need to agonize over whether to call child-welfare workers in the middle of the night based solely on suspicion of a threat.
Starting Thursday, the department will enter any drug-related cases where a child's safety could be compromised into the new Drug Endangered Child Tracking System.
Officers have always been required to report suspected child abuse and neglect, said Sheriff Steve Deweese, but without the tracking system, there had been no formal way to share suspicions and concerns directly with child-welfare workers.
"We just didn't input the data to make a black-and-white document," he said Wednesday, "and in law enforcement, if it's not on paper, it didn't happen."
The State Police announced in May it was creating the database to help caseworkers and to help ensure that at-risk children don't fall through the cracks of overburdened criminal justice and child-welfare systems. Officers will enter every felony drug arrest, and child-welfare workers can log in to look for cases that may not already be on their radar.
The system is not accessible to the public.
Sara Whitney, an investigator in the Putnam County prosecutor's office, said it doesn't replace traditional mandatory reporting but is "just another avenue to share information.
"Law enforcement does a great job of identifying kids -- if they're there. But sometimes, you may not know there are children involved," she said. "A lot of these kids come and go from relatives or neighbors, and it may be that when law enforcement interacts with the parents, they are somewhere else.
"By including all felony arrests," Whitney said, "that's going to give CPS a heads up that, 'Hey, we've arrested Mom or Dad' or whatever."