Kansas Child Protective Services Remains Silent on Recent Death of Topeka Boy

Reality check is a Star series that holds those in power accountable and shines a light on their decisions. Have a suggestion for a future story? Email our reporters at [email protected].

Despite a new Kansas law allowing for faster sharing of information after a child’s death, the state has not released anything about a Topeka boy found dead last month.

The Department of Children and Families declined a request from the Star for information about Zerick I. Ozuna, the 9-year-old boy found dead in his family home on June 20. Shawnee County Sheriff’s Office officials said Zerick had injuries to his neck and chest.

Click to resize

“DCF has determined that the records you are seeking are closed … because there is no DCF-required finding of abuse or neglect at this time,” DCF spokeswoman Erin La Row told the Star in an email response to a request under the Kansas Public Records Act. “DCF now considers the KORA request closed.”

Row also declined at this point to say whether Zerick’s family had been investigated by DCF for allegations of child abuse or neglect in the past.

The reason the state is remaining silent on Zerick’s death lies in the details of the new legislation itself. And the fact that his mother, who was arrested after her son was found dead, also died before she was charged.

The day police found Zerick, his mother, Shyla M. Goracke, 29, was taken into custody and hospitalized. Four days later, on June 24, the Shawnee County Sheriff’s Office reported her death.

“The new law does not apply here because no charges have been formally filed,” La Row said. “DCF is awaiting information from law enforcement to finalize its findings.”

House Bill 2628, which took effect July 1, requires the DCF secretary to disclose information related to a child’s death when related criminal charges are filed and the child was involved in the child welfare system.

Without those two factors, state law still does not allow the child welfare agency to release information until the investigation is complete and it is determined that the child died as a result of abuse or neglect, DCF said, which can take weeks or longer.

Talking to children is often a crucial step in determining a history of child abuse, according to Police Resource Guides published by the United States Department of JusticeIt gets more complicated when, like Zerick, the child involved in a potential neglect investigation has died.

Even without charges, documents detailing child abuse investigations can legally be released to law enforcement officers, mental health professionals, social workers and court officials, according to HB2628.

However, without a conclusion on the pending charges against Goracke, it is unclear when – or if – investigations into Zerick’s death will be concluded.

Goracke’s cause of death has not been publicly identified.

The Shawnee County Sheriff’s Office declined to say whether charges were pending against Goracke before his death.

The sheriff’s office also did not say whether there were any other suspects in Zerick’s death, and did not confirm whether the investigation into his death was closed.

“We will miss him greatly”

Goracke shared her home with her husband Eli Goracke, who also has not been charged in Shawnee County court, according to land and court records.

Zerick was a fourth-grade student at Farley Elementary School in Topeka, in Auburn-Washburn United School District 437.

A third-grade teacher posted a message on Facebook on June 24 about the student’s death and the impact it had.

“Zerick stood out in our tight-knit group of 2023-2024 third graders at Farley as a kind, curious and creative boy,” wrote teacher Bobbi Hamman. “He always seemed to be thinking and planning. In our small reading and writing group, Zerick often had so many adventurous ideas that his pencil couldn’t keep up with the elaborate story he wanted to share.”

“He also loved to plan and carry out projects with his friends to accompany his stories of which he was so proud. Zerick will be greatly missed.”

Goracke owned Mutt’Staches Mobile Grooming, a mobile dog grooming business based in Topeka. She announced the closure of her business on Facebook on June 19, the day before she was told of her son’s death.

“This is a tearful post…even though I love what I do and this business, I am unfortunately closing Mutt’Staches Mobile Grooming effective immediately for personal reasons,” she wrote. “This is something I never wanted to do, especially not give notice. I know how unprofessional it is.”

“It kills me to have to continue down this path, but I would never do something like this if I thought it wasn’t my only option. At the end of the day, I have to take care of my son and myself.”

According to court documents, Goracke had no criminal history.

Thirty-two children were killed in the state of Kansas in 2021, according to the most recent comprehensive data available from the Kansas State Child Death Review Board. Most were boys, and most had already been visited by DCF — including four of the five homicides determined to be the direct result of child abuse.

Laura Bauer, who joined the Kansas City Star in 2005, focuses on investigative and watchdog journalism. Over her 30-year career, Laura has won numerous national awards for her coverage of human trafficking, child welfare, crime and government secrecy.

Ilana Arougheti (they/she) is a news reporter for the Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism, sociology, and gender studies. Ilana has previously written for the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and Raleigh News & Observer. Please reach out with any questions or tips!
Support my work with a digital subscription