A Brooklyn Center woman who killed her 10-month-old son had regained custody of him months after he was removed from her care for previous instances of abuse, and multiple positive reports from child protection workers cleared the way for his return, court records show.
Arneshia K. Cunigan, 30, agreed last week to plead guilty in Hennepin County District Court to second-degree manslaughter in connection with the apparent suffocation of Kamari Gholston in April 2021 in her apartment.
The plea agreement calls for a sentence of nearly 3½ years, with the first 2¼ years in prison and the balance on supervised release. Sentencing before Judge Paul Scoggin is scheduled for Aug. 31. Cunigan remains out of custody until then and declined to comment Wednesday.
Kamari's twin sister, Kamaya, was not abused by Cunigan "because she was the defendant's favorite," according to the criminal complaint filed in January, nine months after the boy's death. As recently as last month, the court was allowing Cunigan to see her daughter, who is living with her father, Terrence Gholston, for two hours twice a week while supervised.
Joe Mitchell, a county-appointed attorney for Gholston, declined to comment Wednesday other than to say it's been "a difficult time" for Gholston. "[He] is focused on grieving and providing healing and stability for his family," Mitchell said.
All other attorneys associated with the child protection case, as well as representatives of the county's Child Protection Services, either declined comment or did not respond to messages from the Star Tribune.
Besides the manslaughter case lodged against Cunigan, there also is a felony malicious punishment charge stemming from injuries she allegedly inflicted on Kamari when he was 4 months old. Those injuries led child protection officials to get involved with the family in the first place.
In that case, filed four months after Kamari died, prosecutors say Cunigan brought her son to North Memorial Health in Robbinsdale on Oct. 30, 2020, to have a painful arm checked. An exam revealed a broken elbow, a cut under his lip and "probable fractures" to a rib, ankle, wrist and knee.
"She claimed that he must have been injured when his older siblings — ages 9, 11, and 7 — were playing with or handling him roughly," the charges read. "None of the victim's injuries would be expected to be caused by routine care by an adult or handling by another child."
Following the discovery of Kamari's injuries, he and his twin sister were placed on a 72-hour "welfare hold" and then moved into court-ordered foster placement with their godmother in early December 2020.
Progress reports filed in court in late January 2021 by a caseworker for the Hennepin County Children's Services Department and the state's guardian ad litem program noted that Cunigan was taking parenting courses, receiving therapy and meeting all her obligations with the court. The reports also spoke well of the twins' physical and emotional progress while in foster care.
The reports pointed out that within about six weeks of losing custody, Cunigan and the twins' father were being allowed unsupervised visits during the week and overnights on weekends.
Cunigan and Gholston, who lived part time in the family's home, "have cooperated and done everything that ... has been asked from the time the case opened," wrote guardian ad litem Michelle Deibert. "They are loving parents and have shown commitment to their children. Ms. Cunigan has a new job as a security officer and reports that her goal is to work with children in the future to help stop violence in the community."
Deibert concluded, "It is in the children's best interest to be returned to the care of Ms. Cunigan and Mr. Gholston."
County caseworker Michael Casello gave a similarly encouraging report, saying the foster-care provider expressed "no concerns." The twins' daily visits with Cunigan and Gholston "have been appropriate, loving, caring and nurturing," Casello wrote.
Based on those reports and the recommendation of Assistant County Attorney Amanda Harrington, of the child protection division, Judge Francis Magill approved a trial home visit for Cunigan. She was reunited with her twins for the six-month test run starting Feb. 18, 2021.
On April 20, 2021, two months and two days after custody was restored, Kamari was dead, and Kamaya was soon removed from Cunigan's care once again.
Cunigan called 911 about 8 p.m. the day of Kamari's death and said her son was not breathing. Emergency responders arrived to find her performing chest compressions on the boy, who "was visibly bluish-purple," the manslaughter criminal complaint read.
Cunigan told first responders she put Kamari down for a nap with a bottle of formula shortly before calling 911, the complaint read. She checked on him and saw he was not breathing. She said she spotted formula coming out of Kamari's nose and thought he might have choked, the complaint continued.
The Medical Examiner's Office, however, said its autopsy found nothing to support Cunigan's version of events surrounding the boy's death.
"The findings are consistent with death as a result of smothering or suffocation by blocking the victim's airway," the complaint read.
"Kamari died after being tortured," said Mike Tikkanen, founder and CEO of the Hopkins-based nonprofit Kids at Risk Action, after reviewing key details surrounding the boy's death. "At-risk children and families need more help, not less. It's painful for me to watch this happen."