The West Virginia Supreme Court upheld a Lewis County judge's decision to terminate parental rights to the mother of a child who has been missing for more than a year.
Lena Lunsford, the mother of Aliayah Lunsford and six other children, had appealed Judge Thomas Keadle's ruling from May 2012. Lunsford and her children were identified by their initials in the Supreme Court decision announced on Feb. 11.
"Courts are not required to exhaust every speculative possibility of parental involvement ... where it appears that the welfare of the child will be seriously threatened," the justices stated in their unanimous affirmation of the lower court decision.
Lunsford is scheduled to be released from prison later this month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons website. She is serving an eight-month sentence for welfare fraud.
Aliayah Lunsford was 3 years old at the time of her still-unexplained disappearance in September 2011. Her disappearance prompted the state Department of Health and Human Resources in October to file an abuse and neglect petition, alleging imminent danger to the remaining children in Lena and Ralph Lunsford's care. According to the Supreme Court memorandum, neither parent has been able to provide an explanation as to the child's disappearance, and each hs "vaguely accused" the other for the disappearance.
At the May 2012 hearing regarding the termination of parental rights, the court found that the "parents have more knowledge about (Aliayah Lunsford's) whereabouts than they revealed but refused to provide that information to the court."
Lena Lunsford argued that she was never given a chance to correct the alleged abuse/neglect situation through an improvement period. But the respondents in the case countered that without an explanation or correction of whatever led to Aliayah Lunsford's disappearance, there could be no assurance that the other children in the home can be safe in their parents' care.
The Supreme Court memorandum also cited a report of a domestic violence incident in which it was alleged that "the children's father attempted to cut Lena Lunsford's throat." The memorandum did not identify the name nor the initials of the father involved in the alleged incident, as two different men are fathers to the various children. Lena Lunsford has filed for divorce from her husband Ralph. The couple had been ordered to live apart after he acknowledged buying bath salts at the former Hot Stuff and Cool Things store in Clarksburg.
Lena Lunsford argued that the abuse and neglect petition was based solely on Aliayah Lunsford's disappearance and not on any prior domestic violence issues or parenting concerns. She claimed "that the disappearance alone is not enough to show (Lena Lunsford) did anything wrong or enough to terminate her parental rights," according to the Supreme Court memorandum.
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. Investigators have described the persons of interest in the case as "a small universe."
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.
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.