A report showed that the Kansas agency investigated the girl’s family five times before she was killed
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 were unable to confirm allegations of neglect or drug use by her mother. A report released Tuesday showed the family repeatedly rejected offers of help.
In one case, the agency confirmed that the mother was not properly supervising Zoe Felix, but the girl was placed with her father and because of that, “no safety concerns were identified,” the state Department of Children and Families report said. After receiving allegations in late August about drug use and lack of facilities at the home, child welfare officials made seven failed attempts to reach the family over the next month.
On October 2, Zoe died after fire crews were unable to revive her at a gas station. Neighbors believe Zoe and her father were camping in a grove of trees on a nearby vacant lot.
“The death of Zoe Felix 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 speed up the release of information when a child dies from abuse or neglect. Her administration pushed for such a change in 2021, but the bill was never passed.
Currently, DCF is only releasing a summary of its engagement initially and cannot do so until lawyers have examined the document. Typically, full case reports are not released until after the prosecution is complete, which can take more than a year.
This has left an information void in Zoe’s case that was exacerbated Tuesday when a judge sealed the arrest affidavit that was used to support criminal charges against Sherri.
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, declined to comment. Cherry’s family did not respond to phone messages, and his Facebook friends described him as chronically homeless.
Neighbour Zoe said walking around their neighborhood dirty and hungry. Several of them reported that they had contacted Save the Children to express their concerns.
According to a DCF summary, child welfare officials said they received the first tip about Zoe on Sept. 8, 2022, claiming poor conditions at the home and possible drug use in the presence of a child. The agency said that the mother agreed to a drug test and the result was negative.
The agency also said in its summary that Zoe’s mother worked with Court Services. By then, she had been charged with domestic battery against her husband and teenage daughter, court records show. The agency offered assistance to the family, but they declined and closed the case, the DCF summary said.
Another complaint alleging an unsupervised child was brought to the agency on Nov. 8, 2002. Just six days earlier, Zoe’s mother called to report the 4-year-old missing, a police report on the incident showed. Zoe was found unharmed a short time later.
The DCF summary did not mention Zoe’s disappearance, and it was not clear whether that was the reason for filing the complaint. The summary simply said the case was baseless and offers of assistance were rejected.
Later that month, Zoe’s mother was arrested after crashing her car near a north Topeka bar while driving drunk with Zoe in the front seat. A sworn statement from a Topeka police officer, also released Tuesday, said the mother “was having difficulty standing upright, and was trying to walk away with the young child.”
He also wrote that when he looked at her car, he saw two open bottles of vodka, one half full and the other three-quarters full. The officer said Zoe said in interviews that her mother was drinking from both bottles before and while driving.
The mother was uncooperative and “was taken to the ground to be handcuffed,” the officer wrote.
Social care workers left Zoe in her father’s care, the DCF summary said. Court records show he was living with a girlfriend at the time. Zoe’s mother was jailed until March, when she pleaded guilty to felony aggravated battery and driving under the influence and was sentenced to probation.
Zoe’s father was evicted from his apartment in May. The agency received further information that month alleging there were no operational facilities at the mother’s home, but the agency found the home to be “livable,” with amenities and food available and no signs of medications. Once again, the family refused services.
Then on Aug. 29, another complaint alleged drug use and lack of an escort, prompting the agency to make seven failed attempts to contact the family in September.
But during that period, police went to the house twice, and on one occasion even tracked down and spoke to Zoe. Zoe’s father told officers she didn’t live there, city spokeswoman Gretchen Spiker said.
The second time police responded, an officer stood outside while property was being recovered from the home, a police report said. Police reports do not say where Zoe, her sister, her father and Sherry went next, but neighbors said they were living in a makeshift camp.
Laura Howard, executive director of the Department of Children and Families, pledged to conduct a comprehensive investigation.
“We will take all necessary steps,” she wrote in a statement.
DCF opened another investigation as a result of Zoe’s death.