WICHITA, Kan. – Prosecutors filed first-degree murder charges Wednesday against the mother of a 2-year-old who died from suspected abuse and the woman's boyfriend, the latest case in the Wichita area involving young children who died after the embattled Kansas welfare agency had received earlier reports that they were being abused.
The head Kansas Department of Children and Families acknowledged Tuesday that the agency was not fulfilling its mission and announced more changes at the agency. Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel said in a news release that the agency will be "implementing corrective action plans" in child welfare programs and will be making a number of personnel changes.
Her announcement came after court records showed that relatives of 2-year-old Anthony Bunn reported concerns to the agency before the Wichita toddler was found unresponsive Friday at his home with severe injuries to his head and face. He died Sunday at a local hospital.
His 22-year-old mother, Elizabeth Woolheater and her 25-year-old boyfriend, Lucas Diel, were charged Wednesday after a first court appearance via video feed from jail. They are each being held on $250,000 bond, with their preliminary hearing scheduled for May 23.
Their public defenders have not yet been assigned to their cases.
Zak Woolheater, the boy's maternal grandfather, clutched a stuffed monkey the nurses had given the boy as he lay dying at the hospital as he spoke after the court hearing. The grandparents had reported to authorities that they suspected child abuse in October.
He told reporters that child abuse is something that happens all over the world and is a huge problem.
"We just need to focus on getting justice for that and an end to this epidemic — that is my biggest concern right now," Zak Woolheater said. "I know justice will be served in some way for Tony, but I need everybody to know that you need to talk to everybody you know and get them onboard now. This is something that needs to stop now."
The child welfare agency in Kansas has been under fire since a 3-year-old Wichita boy was found encased in concrete after his relatives repeatedly reported abuse to the state and police. And relatives of 5-year-old who disappeared in February in Wichita also say they called the state to report suspected abuse.
"As I looked at each region, it became evident that there were concerning trends in the Wichita Region we needed to address," Meier-Hummel said.
The welfare agency earlier this week promoted Family Preservation Services Program Administrator Thomas Buell to serve as the Wichita regional director. It also recently fired two staff members and said "several other matters" are pending while it further investigates work performance in Wichita and across the state.
In addition, Meier-Hummel said she has stationed administrative staff at the Wichita Service Center for the past four weeks to help review open child abuse and neglect cases, and to strengthen oversight in the region.