Family feels let down by system, wants justice for Zoey Chafer

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Zoey Chafer faced big challenges in her short life. The 4-year-old from Hayward was born with severe cerebral palsy, and couldn’t speak or walk.

Still, she was beginning to be more responsive, according to her father, Michael. “She was getting to the point, where you know, if you tickled her armpits, she’d start giggling and smiling.”

But that smile is gone forever. Zoey died in July of 2021. Emergency medical services responded to her mother’s apartment, finding her pale and cold to the touch.

Medical staff called her death at the Hayward Area Memorial Hospital. A grief stricken father, buries his little girl.

Then, two weeks later, Chafer is even more shocked, when authorities told him she’d died from an overdose of alcohol. 

“The coroner did do a blood draw, which I’m so thankful for. Because had that not happened, we would have never known about Zoey having alcohol in her system,” Chafer told us.

The lab said her blood alcohol content was .57. For perspective, an adult is considered legally intoxicated at .08. Zoey’s was seven times that.

Since she received nutrition through a feeding tube, suspicion fell to her caretakers at the time, her mother, Samantha Smith, and her mother’s boyfriend, Domenic Falkner.

The criminal complaint said Falkner was an approved caregiver through Sawyer County Human Services, and paid by the state for his duties.

Now, both of them are arrested and charged with homicide, abuse, and chronic neglect.

The complaint said Falkner moved into Smith’s apartment in August of 2020. Almost immediately after that, Chafer notified police about bruises on his daughters, Zoey and Zoey’s sister, after they had been at their mother’s.

He was able to get a temporary restraining order. But he told us the judge denied a longer term protection, called an injunction.

“Those were denied,” he told us. “A social worker from child protective services said their investigation was unsubstantiated. We felt let down by that.”

The complaint goes on to say that Zoey was admitted to three different hospitals a dozen times between October of 2020 and July of 2021. The diagnosis most of the time was broken bones and bruising.

One time, at Mayo, a doctor asked about a bruise on Zoey’s face. Smith allegedly said her knee bumped into her daughter when she was giving her a nebulizer treatment.

Another time, also at Mayo, the complaint said a concern for “non-accidental trauma was raised.” It said Smith provided information, saying Falkner noticed a swollen left leg.

At other viists, the complaint said Smith denied any knowledge of injuries.

At Zoey‘s school, an employee took photographs of bruises on Zoey’s neck and at least one of her ears. This was on April 8th, according to the document.

A day later, April 9th, she was at the hospital in Hayward. A picture shows what law enforcement described as a severely blackened eye. Staff say they were told that she bruises easily, and gets fractures due to her brittle bone condition, known as osteopenia.

The complaint said law enforcement spoke with three doctors, who at different times cared for Zoey, and each believed she was the victim of abuse. That was despite her brittle bones.

The medical facilities told us they cannot comment on the case. But we do know that doctors and nurses are mandatory reporters in Wisconsin, which means they are required by law to report alleged abuse. So are school personnel.

Chafer told us he didn’t hear about any allegations of abuse. He’d been traveling for work at the time, and didn’t see Zoey or her sister that much. He said Smith told him that Zoey’s broken bones were due to the bone condition.

“It was really heartbreaking to think that somebody I had kids with would lie to me about my kids. You know, no matter how big or small it was,” he shared.

We wanted more clarification about the process. The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families explained that when someone calls protective services, they speak to an access professional. That person decides if the allegation meets the legal definition of suspected child abuse.

If the decision is no, and the report is screened out, there is no requirement under state law or standard, that the child’s parents be notified.

If the report is screened in, the department said caseworkers must interview the parents, including non-custodial ones, if possible, during what’s called the initial assessment.

WDIO asked multiple leaders from Sawyer County if they could answer questions about the case. Specifically, if any allegations were screened in. Both the county administrator and the health officer said they could not comment, due to the ongoing investigations. 

The family believes something went wrong.

“I do feel like CPS let Zoey down,” Chafer repeated.

In the meantime, he tries to stay positive, for his other daughter. 

He had a special decal made for his truck, in honor of Zoey. 

“It’s definitely been a rollercoaster of emotions. Naturally, sadness comes from it. But I have a good support system,” Chafer said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a long road ahead of us. But we will get there.”

The defendants, Smith and Falkner, have a court hearing coming up next week.