David Neese, his face locked in a permanent frown, couldn't find a spot to stand in the West Virginia House Judiciary Committee hearing room. As delegates and committee members packed into the stately quarters on March 5, David made way, apologetic. In minutes, he'd have everyone's attention.
David's 16-year-old daughter, Skylar, left home last July. A surveillance camera in her Star City apartment building saw Skylar sneaking out and getting into a car. The phone charger and contact lens solution that Skylar left in her room were indicators that she planned to return. She didn't.
David waited in the hallway with a government-appointed victims specialist until it was time to talk about Skylar. Chairman Tim Miley introduced House Bill 2453, designed to expand the state's Amber Alert system. Because Skylar was not abducted, she was classified as a runaway by local police and not much was done in the vital first few hours of her disappearance. It took her case two months to get to state police. The bill, dubbed Skylar's law, seeks to ensure that every child 17 and under, regardless of the circumstances of their disappearance, be considered missing and eligible for an Amber Alert.
When David approached the microphone to address the room, his grief was palpable. Wearing a t-shirt printed with the words Team Skylar and photos of the cheerful teenager, David fought back emotion as he urged listeners to place themselves in the nightmare endured by him and his wife Mary, who could not bear to attend. He stressed the impact of the bill on the lives of future missing children as he sorrowfully admitted, to himself and to the room, that "it may be too late for Skylar."
Days after the hearing, it was announced that Skylar was dead. In January, human remains were found in Wayne Township, Pennsylvania, some 25 miles northwest of Star City, and on March 13, authorities released the dreaded confirmation. The FBI is involved and little has been made public about the circumstances of Skylar's death. Among hundreds of unanswered questions, one weighs heaviest: would Skylar be alive had she been treated as a missing person and not a runaway?
Delegate Charlene Marshall, a Democrat from Monongalia County and former Morgantown Mayor, is the lead sponsor of the bill. A veteran of West Virginia politics, Marshall has long been a champion for children's' welfare and helped draft the bill along with Tom Bloom, a Monongalia County commissioner, high school counselor and founder of Morgantown Area Youth Services Project. Bloom has offered support to the Neeses during their ordeal and helped David with the difficult task of penning a speech to read before the committee.
After hearing David's emotional plea, the committee unanimously approved the bill and passed it on to the finance committee, which approved it on March 22. The bill is now headed for the state Senate. There are some detractors who say the bill can lead to an overuse of, and subsequent desensitization to, the Amber Alert. Largely, however, Skylar's Law been met with an understanding that teenagers sometimes sneak out to rebel or push parental limits, but that this kind of behavior should not preclude them from the care and concern authorities would display for a child that had been abducted. Danger is danger, no matter how one ends up in it, and the job of police is, before all else, ensuring the safety of citizens.
While it is, unfortunately, too late for Skylar, the law written in her legacy would ensure that families like the Neeses do not have to wait excruciating months for appropriate action to be taken toward finding their missing child.