Attorney: Kansas agency knew of abuse before boy's death

Anthony Bunn

KWCH

WICHITA, Kan. -- The Kansas Department of Children and Families knew that a 2-year-old boy who died after being injured in his home last week was being abused and did not take steps to protect him, according to an attorney for the boy's grandparents.  Anthony Bunn died Friday at a Wichita hospital after officers found him with head and face injuries, police said. 

His mother, Elizabeth Woolheater, 22, and her boyfriend, Lucas Diel, 25, are being held in Sedgwick County jail on suspicion of murder and endangering a child.

Shayla Johnston, an attorney for the boy's maternal grandparents, says in a court document filed over the weekend that the state was aware of a previous abuse report involving Anthony in October 2017 and didn't follow procedures to find permanent placement for him, The Wichita Eagle reported.

The allegation comes as the department faces criticism for other cases in which young children died after law enforcement and the state agency received reports they were being abused. One of those cases involves Johnston's nephew, 3-year-old Evan Brewer, whose body was found in concrete in September. Evan's relatives have said they repeatedly reported abuse to the state and police. His mother and her boyfriend are charged in his death. And relatives of 5-year-old Lucas Hernandez, who disappeared in February, also say they called the state to report suspected abuse.

Johnston said in a document filed in Sedgwick County District Court that after Anthony was abused in October 2017, he was safe in the custody of his grandparents, Zachary and Nancy Woolheater, for 12 days but he was eventually returned to his mother.

The state agency on Monday confirmed it conducted a joint child abuse investigation concerning Anthony with Wichita law enforcement in October 2017.

"We are deeply saddened by this senseless tragedy ... and staff are reviewing this case to determine whether personnel, policy or procedure changes are necessary to prevent further tragedies from occurring," the statement said.

Johnston filed the document in Anthony's death as part of the grandparents' effort to intervene legally on their grandson's behalf and to deal with his end-of-life medical care. 

Zachary Woolheater gave an emotional statement to reporters Tuesday, according to CBS affiliate KWCH, saying his grandson had a "face and personality that lit up everyone he met." He said he made the October 2017 report to the child welfare agency after noticing bruises on the boy's body.

Woolheater called on residents to help end the "plague" of child abuse in the community and to hold local officials accountable for protecting kids.

"I pray that no one else ever has to have their babies taken away like this," said Woolheater. "The amount of pain, anger and complete emptiness that we feel is overwhelming."

A redacted report from Wichita police said officers investigated an abuse complaint involving Anthony in October but not enough evidence was found to file charges. The report said the possible abuse began on July 23, 2017, and ended on Oct. 16, 2017.

The county's district attorney's office confirmed Monday that the earlier case was presented as a child abuse case to prosecutors in November. District Attorney Marc Bennett was expected to make a statement after investigators present the new case to prosecutors, said spokesman Dan Dillon.