BY HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH AND JOHN HANNA
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Child welfare officials investigated the family of a 5-year-old Kansas girl five times in the 13 months before she was raped and killed, but couldn’t confirm allegations of neglect or drug use by her mother, and the family repeatedly declined offers of help, a report released Tuesday showed.
The report by the state Department of Children and Families said in one case, the agency confirmed that the mother wasn’t properly supervising Zoey Felix, but the girl was placed with her father and because of that, “No safety concerns were identified.” After receiving allegations in late August of drug use and lack of utilities in the home, child welfare officials made seven failed attempts to reach the family over the next month.
On Oct. 2, Zoey died after fire crews couldn’t resuscitate her at a gas station. Neighbors believe Zoey and her father had been camping in a grove of trees on a vacant lot nearby.
“Zoey Felix’s death was an unacceptable tragedy,” Gov. Laura Kelly said in a statement accompanying the Department of Children and Families’ two-page summary of its interactions with the girl’s family.
Kelly said she plans to push for legislation next year that would expedite the release of information when a child dies of abuse or neglect. Her administration pushed for such a change in 2021, but a bill never passed.
Currently, DCF only releases a summary of its involvement initially and can’t do so until attorneys vet the document. Typically, the full case reports aren’t released until after the prosecution is completed, which can take well over a year.
This has left an information vacuum in Zoey’s case that was exacerbated Tuesday when a judge sealed the arrest affidavit that was used to support criminal charges against Cherry.
Judge Christopher Turner concluded that releasing the records would jeopardize the safety of witnesses or sources or “cause the destruction of evidence.”
Cherry’s attorney, Mark Manna, of the Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit, has declined to comment. Cherry’s family didn’t respond to phone messages, and his Facebook friends described him as chronically homeless.
Neighbors said Zoey wandered their neighborhood dirty and hungry. Several reported calling child welfare to express concerns.
According to the summary from DCF, child welfare officials said they received the first tip about Zoey on Sept. 8, 2022, alleging poor conditions in the home and possible drug use in the presence of a child. The mother agreed to a drug screen and it came back negative, the agency said.
The agency also said in its summary that Zoey’s mother was working with court services. By then, she had been charged with domestic battery against her husband and teenage daughter, court records show. The DCF summary said the agency offered help to the family, but they declined and the case was closed.
Another complaint alleging an unsupervised child was lodged with the agency on Nov. 8, 2002. Just six days earlier, Zoey’s mother had called to report that the then 4-year-old was missing, a police incident report shows. Zoey was found unharmed a short time later.
The DCF summary made no reference to Zoey’s disappearance, and it was unclear whether that prompted the complaint. The summary said simply that the case was unsubstantiated and offers of help were denied.
Later that month, Zoey’s mother was arrested after crashing her car near a north Topeka bar while driving drunk with Zoey in the front seat. A sworn statement from a Topeka police officer, which also was released Tuesday, said the mother was “having difficulty standing upright, attempting to walk away with a small child.”
He also wrote that in looking into her car, he saw two open bottles of vodka, one half-full and the other, three-quarters full. The officer said that in interviews, Zoey said her mother had been drinking from both bottles before and while driving.
The officer wrote that the mother was uncooperative and, “She was taken to the ground in order to be handcuffed.”
The DCF summary said welfare workers left Zoey in her father’s care; court records show he was living with a girlfriend at the time. Zoey’s mother was jailed until March, when she pleaded guilty to felony aggravated battery and driving under the influence and was sentenced to probation.
Zoey’s father was evicted from his apartment in May. Another tip the agency received that month alleged there were no operating utilities in the mother’s home, but the agency found the home to be “livable,” with utilities, food and no signs of drugs. Again, the family declined services.
Then on Aug. 29, another complaint alleged drug use and no utilities, prompting the seven failed attempts by the agency to contact the family in September.
But during that time, police went to the home twice, once even tracking down Zoey and talking to her. But officers were told by Zoey’s father that she wasn’t living there, city spokeswoman Gretchen Spiker said.
The second time police responded, an officer stood outside as belongings were retrieved from the house, a police report said. Police reports do not explain where Zoey, her sister, her father and Cherry went after that, but neighbors said they were living in a makeshift camp.
Laura Howard, the top administrator for the Department for Children and Families, vowed to launch a thorough investigation.
“We will take every step necessary,” she wrote in a statement.
DCF opened another investigation as a result of Zoey’s death.