MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Her mother is in prison for welfare fraud. Her stepfather is lying low. Her six siblings, some just infants, are in the custody of child welfare authorities. And Aliayah Lunsford, the brown-eyed 3-year-old who vanished from her West Virginia home a year ago Monday, is still missing.
"It just seems like everybody's forgotten her," said Aliayah's great-aunt Vickie Bowen, "but we're never going to forget."
In the year since Aliayah disappeared from her family's rented house in the Bendale section of Lewis County, Bowen has concluded the girl is probably dead, though she avoids using the word. "But we still need to know. We need that closure," Bowen said. "We need to take care of her."
Aliayah's mother, Lena Lunsford, told police her daughter was in bed, wearing purple pajama pants and a pink sweatshirt, at 6:30 a.m. Sept. 24, 2011. But she said the child was missing when she checked on her a few hours later.
Six months later, an FBI official said investigators had a working theory about what happened -- and it didn't involve a break-in. The agency has since refused to say what agents believe happened to Aliayah or whether they think she's alive, though it is offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to her recovery or an arrest.
Authorities have made no arrests and named no suspects, only describing the people of interest as "a small universe." Lewis County Sheriff's Deputy Lt. David Parks declined to discuss details of the investigation this week and referred questions to the FBI, which didn't return several messages. Local authorities have put information about Aliayah in a brochure for people attending a hunting and fishing expo this weekend.
"It's something that stays in our minds all the time here," Parks said. "It's not something you can forget: There's a little girl missing." Parks said the case is still active, though relatives complain they've had no updates in months.
Tomorrow, Bowen and others will plant flowers near the welcome sign in Weston to honor Aliayah. They'll distribute fliers with her picture and post them at area businesses.
"We're not giving up," Bowen said. ". . . A child does not simply disappear."