Child rights advocates ask why state left slain 5-year-old Kansas girl in a clearly unstable home

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Zoey Felix's short life was filled with turbulence.

Before the 5-year-old Topeka girl was raped and killed, worried neighbors say they saw her wandering, dirty and hungry. Police were called to her home dozens of times. Teachers raised alarms when she missed preschool. Records show both parents alleged abuse. Zoey's mom was jailed for a drunken car crash with Zoey in the front seat. State welfare officials were notified.

In September, Zoey and her father moved out, and neighbors believe they began camping in a nearby vacant lot. Weeks later, Zoey was killed and Mickel Cherry, a 25-year-old homeless man, was charged in her death.

Public anger over Zoey's Oct. 2 death has focused on her parents. But child advocates are asking why police and Kansas' embattled Department for Children and Families left her in a dangerous environment.

“Our society’s collective failure to support and protect Zoey is heartbreaking and unconscionable,” said Shakti Belway, executive director at the National Center for Youth Law, which sued the state over problems with its child welfare system.

Cherry is charged with first-degree murder, rape and capital murder, and could face the death penalty. Cherry's attorney, Mark Manna, of the Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit, has declined to comment. Cherry’s family didn’t respond to messages.

Authorities confirmed that Cherry once lived at the same address as Zoey, but he was homeless when he was arrested.

The Associated Press examined dozens of court records and police reports that detail Zoey's chaotic home life. Both parents alleged abuse against each other, and police were called to the home dozens of times, as Zoey moved in and out.

Zoey's mother told the AP via Facebook that her husband, Zoey’s father, had custody. She declined to respond to other questions. Neither parent responded to phone messages. A person who identified herself as a grandmother declined comment.

Police say their investigation is ongoing, but it’s not yet clear that anyone else will be charged.

Laura Howard, the top administrator for the Department for Children and Families, described Zoey's case as “tragic” during an Oct. 4 legislative committee hearing, but didn’t elaborate. The agency has yet to release any information.

“How was that child not removed? It doesn’t make any sense,” said Mike Fonkert, deputy director of Kansas Appleseed, whose group also sued the state.

On the block where Zoey had lived, neighbor Shaniqua Bradley and other neighbors said Zoey sometimes wore the same outfit for a week. They bathed her and gave her clean clothes. Bradley washed the girl’s matted hair, fed her, and said she called child welfare.

In July and August of 2022, Zoey's mother was arrested twice for domestic battery, with her husband listed as the victim in one case, her teenage daughter in the other.

Amid the turmoil, Zoey sometimes showed up to preschool dirty, without socks, underwear or a coat, said Sasha Camacho, a paraprofessional in Zoey’s class who notified the school social worker.

In November, Zoey's mother was charged with driving drunk with an open container and Zoey in her car. Zoey's father obtained a protection-from-abuse order against his wife and secured custody.

Zoey's mother remained in jail through March 2023, and a judge referred the case to the state Department for Children and Families, court records show. Camacho said Zoey met with child welfare officers at least twice that fall.

Zoey missed a lot of preschool and in March stopped attending entirely, Camacho said. The school district said Zoey didn’t attend kindergarten this fall.

In March, Zoey's mom pleaded guilty to felony aggravated battery and driving under the influence, and was sentenced to probation. Other charges were dismissed, and the plea agreement said she could have no contact with Zoey.

Court records show Zoey's situation grew increasingly unstable when her father and his girlfriend were evicted from their apartment and Zoey and her father moved back in with her mother, despite his protection-from-abuse order. Cherry, a friend of Zoey's teenage sister, moved in with them too.

On Sept. 5, neighbor Desiree Myles called police, saying Zoey had been “home alone since yesterday with a strange man — there is no water or electricity at the home.” She said Zoey couldn't name the man.

City spokeswoman Gretchen Spiker said officers met with Zoey at the home, saw she was in “good spirits,” and made a report to child welfare. Zoey’s father told them the girl wasn’t living there. The home was temporarily condemned.

Fonkert, of Kansas Appleseed, said it would be a “huge failure” if no one from child welfare followed up to establish where Zoey was living.

Police returned Sept. 19, and Bradley said she heard Zoey's mom saying everyone had to leave. Police reports do not explain where Zoey, her sister, her father and Cherry went, but neighbors said they lived in a makeshift camp in the vacant lot.

Just before 6 p.m. on Oct. 2, the first call — “5 yo unresponsive” — summoned emergency crews to the gas station.

A fire department incident report says Zoey's father said someone took her body to the gas station where he worked, although it does not say who. Emergency responders performed life-saving measures at the scene, but Zoey was pronounced dead at a hospital. The police report doesn't say how she died.

A memorial for Zoey soon appeared nearby with flowers, balloons and toys.

Sharon Williams, another neighbor, said she has been answering her granddaughter's questions since her playmate died: “She asked, ‘Did Zoey go to heaven?’ And I said, ‘Yes, she did.’”


Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas. AP news researchers Jennifer Farrar, Rhonda Shafner and Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.