"So much of our woes can be traced to how we treat our children," Mahan says. Although some legislators understand the importance of the problem, "I honestly think it's still not the priority it should be."
Within the court system, though, "there's been a realization this just can't continue," retiring Supreme Court Justice Thomas McHugh said.
"It would be impossible for any judge to adequately detail in words the horrible conditions under which some children exist," McHugh said. "It's beyond the imagination of most people. If the state doesn't step in now, these children will never make it."
Troubled kids skip school, use drugs, become violent, commit crimes and often end up in jail or prison just like their parents.
"Legislators have to realize this is a very, very serious problem," then make meaningful investments in an array of social programs, McHugh said. "What is the life of a child worth? You can put no value on it."
The state's Court Improvement Program is doing what it can to help children, strengthening the standards and training requirements for the attorneys who represent them, among other things.
Judges also are taking a hard line with parents, McHugh said.
In 2002, West Virginia courts terminated the parental rights of just 34 people, said Nikki Tennis, director of the Division of Children's Services. In 2011, judges terminated parental rights 1,065 times.
At any given time, about 4,000 children are in out-of-home care and about 1,000 are awaiting adoption, legally severed from their parents.
It's a tough call every time, said Judge Johnson, who chairs the Court Improvement Program. No matter how terrible parents are, most children want to be with them.
Years ago, Johnson terminated rights to a mistreated 12-year-old girl.
"She came up to me afterward and said, 'I'll never forgive you for this,'" he recalled. Eventually, though, the girl graduated from high school, earned a degree at West Virginia University and had a family of her own.
Her mother later moved to Pennsylvania and had another child who drowned in a bathtub.
Both the courts and the child-welfare system see family reunification as the goal in troubled homes. But often, the parents lack the resources and the support to stay clean. Nor is there anyone to hold them accountable.
"The problem is that the child-welfare system cannot be West Virginia's answer to drug abuse, and it's being asked to do so," veteran children's attorney Catherine Munster said. "It's a public health issue, not a child-welfare issue, and the storm clouds really are gathering."
West Virginia, critics contend, spends too much money on its overcrowded correctional system and not enough on the intervention and treatment programs that could help reduce crime, thin out the cell blocks and build better parents.
The state must invest in community-based treatment both for the parents and the kids, DHRR deputy commissioner Sue Hage said. Schools, medical and mental health providers, lawmakers and others have an obligation to provide the services.
"This is not a DHHR issue. It's not the courts' issue," Hage says. "It's everyone's issue and everyone's challenge."