Crime & Courts

State didn't follow through on key steps to save 2-year-old Tony Bunn, records show

Pallbearers carry the casket of 2-year-old Anthony "Tony" Bunn out of St. Joseph Catholic Church after his funeral May 17.  He would have turned 3 on July 23.
Pallbearers carry the casket of 2-year-old Anthony "Tony" Bunn out of St. Joseph Catholic Church after his funeral May 17. He would have turned 3 on July 23.

Seven months before 2-year-old Tony Bunn was beaten to death — reportedly for not eating a hotdog — the state was alerted to possible child abuse.

Records show the state's child protective services agency failed to follow through on at least one key part of the case, possibly missing a chance to save him.

In October, Tony's two grandmothers took him to a Wichita emergency room with unexplained bruises on his head and back. As required by law, at 2:09 p.m. on Oct. 18, the state's Department for Children and Families was contacted.

Social workers found a child who met the classic signs of being at risk: He was younger than 4. He lived with his mom and her boyfriend, who had a history of violence. And he was isolated — he was too young to go to school, he was not in day care and, after the emergency room visit, the maternal grandparents were no longer allowed to see him.

By May, Tony was dead. The mother and her boyfriend — Elizabeth Woolheater, 23, and Lucas Diel, 25 — have been charged with first-degree murder.

On Friday, in response to a records request and a court order directing release of most of the records, the DCF released about 400 pages of documents in Tony's case. The records show the system didn't follow through with inquiries. More than 100 pages were redacted. Dozens of other pages were blank.

In a separate, earlier summary on Tony's case, the DCF said that the mother and boyfriend dismissed the injuries by saying they were normal for a 2-year-old. The summary said a medical exam did not reveal internal injuries or result in a finding of abuse.

Along with the DCF, detectives with the Exploited and Missing Child Unit also investigated, but District Attorney Marc Bennett has said there wasn't enough evidence then to file criminal charges against the mother and boyfriend at that time.

DCF responds

The social worker assigned to Tony's case was the same one assigned to investigate child abuse allegations concerning Evan Brewer. Three-year-old Evan's body was found encased in concrete in a south Wichita rental home in September. The next month, the social worker was assigned to Tony's case.

In a statement Saturday, DCF said that Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel visited the Wichita office after Tony's death to "determine whether all appropriate action was taken to ensure his safety."

"Upon her review, Secretary Meier-Hummel took immediate and necessary action — including initiating personnel changes and prompting other case reviews," the statement said. "Specifically, the staff member and the supervisor on Anthony Bunn’s case are no longer with the agency. DCF is committed to ensuring the well-being and safety of children, and we will continue to strengthen our services to serve Kansans."

Missed opportunities

The DCF records show multiple problems with the investigation and follow-up with Tony, including:

The mother and her boyfriend agreed to family preservation services, which can include anger management, parenting classes, counseling and other help.

But the DCF never requested services for them, according to a summary of the case provided by the agency. Had services been assigned, someone would have continued to check on Tony and his family, increasing the chance that a case worker would have detected a situation that was escalating out of control. Had the family later refused help, that too would have raised a red flag on Tony's behalf.

If the DCF had followed through they would have assigned a case worker and a supervisor to work with the family, said Shayla Johnston, an attorney working with the maternal grandparents. They would have been checking on Tony, she said. That would have fast-tracked the ability to use the legal process to remove Tony from the home.

The grandparents showed the DCF pictures of Tony with bruises — photos the grandparents said were taken on July 23, Sept. 7 and Sept. 8. The social worker didn't have the mom sign a release granting the DCF access to medical records until December, two months after the investigation was over. Even then, nothing in the logs indicates that past medical records were requested. Tony's autopsy noted a healing fracture in his forearm — a possible sign of past abuse.

The records lack documentation. There is no indication whether tasks were followed up on. Dates are missing on the handwritten logs, which are difficult to read.

While the allegations of abuse were being investigated, Tony stayed with his maternal grandparents. The social worker met with the maternal grandmother, Nancy Woolheater, in her home and attempted to talk with Tony to find out whether anyone had tried to hurt him. The social worker's log says that Tony was unresponsive.

"He was just being his Tony self and playing around," Nancy Woolheater recalled Saturday. "Basically he just wanted to play. She told me, 'OK this is not going to work, let's bring him to the office to try to interview him there.' She said she would call me to set something up, but she never did."

Nancy Woolheater said she tried to call the DCF several times to set up the interview. The interview never happened, according to the logs. The social worker returned her calls, Nancy Woolheater said, only after law enforcement had returned Tony to his mother and her live-in boyfriend. The grandparents were never allowed by their daughter to see Tony again, until after he was rushed to the hospital on May 4 with the fatal injuries.

The records don't indicate whether the social worker knew the full history of Diel's violent past. The case file notes that Diel served time in prison after being convicted of a felony criminal threat in 2016. That year, a little over two years before Tony died, Diel's mother filed a petition for protection from abuse against Diel. The document, which is not part of the DCF records, includes a handwritten statement from Diel's mother saying "he pulled me down to the floor ... he had a choke hold on my neck and had the broken glass in his right hand."

The social worker and a detective interviewed Diel this past October. According to the case logs, he said he would never hit Tony.

The man who ended being charged with Tony's murder told them back then that "I love Tony to death."