Special agents from the Army Criminal Investigation Command are investigating the death of a 2-year-old Army child who died late last year from injuries suffered at the Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., home of a babysitter.
Alizaundra Kundert, daughter of Rae and Army Staff Sgt. Jonathan Kundert, died Nov. 15 at St. Louis Children’s Hospital as a result of the injuries that happened Nov. 6, at the babysitter’s home. The babysitter was not authorized by base officials to provide child care, according to Rae Kundert, who said she knew the sitter was not certified, but trusted her because they had been friends for a long time.
But the Kunderts’ suffering and nightmare went beyond the shock and mourning of their daughter’s death. Although the incident happened in the home of a babysitter, the Kunderts were initially placed under suspicion, prompting local civilian authorities to remove their other three children from the family home a week after Ali’s death, for more than six months. And because they realized they were under suspicion, and were fighting to get their three children returned, the Kunderts hired attorneys, and say they have racked up nearly $10,000 in attorney fees.
It’s the third known death of a military child in unauthorized day care on base within the span of a year. Army CID spokesman Chris Grey confirmed the death is under investigation by CID and the local police department, but said no further information can be released because of the ongoing investigation. Installation officials didn’t confirm whether the babysitter was a certified family child care provider, as is required by Army and Defense Department regulations.
Now, Kundert says, she wants to warn other military families that it matters that they choose properly qualified child care providers.
“Go through the proper channels. I want to warn people about what could happen, especially if you’re using someone who’s not family child care certified, whether it’s a friend or not. You just don’t know. I think it’s a lack of knowledge and education.”
The underlying issue is the shortage of child care in the military, Kundert said.
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“I support the military full-fledged,” she said. “But there are so many military members and not enough child care. The [child development centers] are constantly filling up, and there aren’t enough people going for [family child care certification] the proper way. That’s why you have all these unlicensed babysitters on post. …. Soldiers and families may feel they don’t have any other option.”
DoD and the services have been working to increase the amount of child care for military families, but the need is exacerbated even more now as shutdowns, social distancing, and other steps taken because of the pandemic have decreased the amount of child care available.
The children are back at home
On Aug. 18, a judge in a Pulaski County juvenile court hearing terminated that court’s jurisdiction over the children, said the Kunderts’ attorney, Ronda Cortesini. The children are back with their parents, and that closes the case, with no further involvement from the Missouri Department of Social Services’ Children’s Division. There was never a finding that either of the Kunderts neglected or abused their children, Cortesini said.
“We’re relieved, but we’re disappointed,” said Rae Kundert, after the hearing. “We feel that as soon as her autopsy report came back, they could have put our kids back with us.”
The autopsy report was completed in January.
“They jumped to conclusions and came in and removed our children,” she said. “It’s frustrating we had to go through all this to get to this point.”
Cortesini said she “got involved in this case because I felt like it was an injustice.”
Army investigators have said the Kunderts are no longer under suspicion in Ali’s death, and that the investigation is currently focusing on another person, said James Phillips, an attorney hired by the Kunderts to act as counsel to facilitate communication, in their frustration because of lack of information. In this role, Phillips serves solely as a conduit between the Kunderts, investigators and the special victims prosecutor at Fort Leonard Wood, he said.
‘She hit her head hard’
The incident that sparked the investigations happened at the babysitter’s house, but the babysitter had left to take her daughter to school, leaving her soldier husband to watch Ali, according to Rae Kundert. The soldier made the 911 call that alerted officials to a problem.
Military Times is not naming the soldier or the babysitter because neither has been charged with any crime.
Jonathan Kundert dropped off Ali at the usual time, between 7:15 and 7:30 on Nov. 6, according to Rae Kundert. At 8:57 a.m., the soldier called 911, according to a call log.
According to the tape of the 911 call, the soldier said the child fell down about eight or nine stairs, after he had put her down for a nap upstairs.
“She hit her head hard. She’s limp and acting very funny,” the soldier told the dispatcher. He said she had a knot on her head where she hit.
Moments later, the soldier can be heard during the 911 call reaching out to to Jonathan Kundert, telling him he needs to rush to the babysitter’s house.
Rae and Ali were flown to St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Doctors later explained that because of the damage to her brain, Ali would never regain consciousness, Kundert said.
According to the medical examiner’s report, the cause of death was “blunt force injuries of the head and neck.”
The report raises questions about how the death occurred. According to the autopsy neuropathology report, the nature of the injuries of the neck and upper thoracic spinal cord indicate that “this was not plausibly caused by a fall of this small child down a short flight of 4 stairs, as was apparently alleged to the EMS personnel.
“More likely there was a forced severe hyperextension of the neck, probably accompanying the blow or blows causing the extensive bruising,” the report stated.
“No parent wants to see an autopsy report of their child, to read what we had to read,” said Rae Kundert. “We don’t even know exactly what happened.”
The Missouri Department of Social services’ Children’s Division petitioned the judge to have the other three Kundert children removed from the home. Information was not available from the Children’s Division about what the standard operating procedure is in these cases. But the court document in this case stated: “The natural mother and the natural father are possible alleged perpetrators” in Ali’s death,” adding that the safety of the children “cannot be ensured in the home.”
“In the initial petition to remove the children, they never even put anything about the children being over at [the babysitter’s house.] That lady wrote that report as if everything happened at our house. It couldn’t have happened here. I don’t even have a 2-story house. We live in a one-story”off post, Rae Kundert said. According to court documents provided by Kundert, that petition didn’t state that the incident happened at the sitter’s house.
Even after the medical reports came back confirming that there was no evidence of abuse in the children’s examinations, they didn’t return the children, she said. That petition from the Missouri Department of Social Services’ Children’s Division initially placed the children in Rae Kundert’s aunt’s home, then returned them to the Kunderts June 1 under a trial placement, with the children and family receiving services to include grief counseling. While their social worker has been “amazing,” she said, she blames the initial Children’s Division investigators who “purposely made it seem like she got hurt at our home.”
Information about the case was not available from the Missouri Department of Social Services. Their website states that the safety of the children is their top priority.
‘We just want our daughter’s story told’
Initially, the Kunderts were frustrated because they knew they were under suspicion, and had trouble getting information from investigators. James Phillips, their counsel, helped with that communication. Part of the problem was that through the PCS rotation process, the special victims prosecutor hadn’t yet arrived at Fort Leonard Wood, Phillips said. Since she arrived, Phillips said, “she’s been very proactive… very involved in the case.” He’s also assured the Kunderts that while no charges have yet been preferred in the case, the investigators are working to make sure all the lab results are back and every detail is covered. “It’s the kind of case that’s very important to them,” he said.
“You really want the government to take their time to get it right,” said Phillips, who has served as civilian defense counsel in a number of military courts-martial proceedings around the country over the last 20 years.
“We just want our daughter’s story told, and that’s the main thing,” Rae Kundert said. Up until now, her daughter’s death has never been made public, she said, and she was concerned that the death was being “swept under the rug.”
Her husband’s direct chain of command, his battalion and battalion company, have been “amazing” in their support, Kundert said. “But I feel like the military needs to take more responsibility. If you look at our daughter’s medical report, somebody put in the report that the mother is the prime suspect [initially.] How can I be the prime suspect when I wasn’t even with her? I was at work.”
The babysitter and her husband declined to comment about the incident to Military Times. In a Facebook post to Rae Kundert the day of the incident, the soldier wrote, “I’m truly sorry that this happened. I shouldn’t have put her upstairs to nap. I should have left her on the couch. I’m at a true loss for words.”
Not authorized to provide child care
Fort Leonard Wood did not provide Information about whether the babysitter was certified to provide child care. But Rae Kundert said she knew the babysitter was not certified to provide child care in her home on base, and installation officials didn’t know the babysitter was providing child care to Ali Kundert and her 6-year-old brother on a daily basis, from about 7:30 a.m. until 4:30 or 5 p.m. She was also providing care to another child for a few hours a week. Kundert said she didn’t know that Army regulations prohibited an unauthorized child care provider from caring for children more than 10 hours a week on a regular basis.
This is the third known death of a military child in unauthorized day care in military housing within the year before Ali’s death: 18-month-old toddler Amir Melton, son of two sailors, died as the result of head injuries he received on Oct. 23, 2018; and 7-month-old Abigail Lobisch died at a babysitter’s home in privatized housing at Aliamanu Military Reservation in Hawaii on Feb. 24, 2019.
Kundert said she trusted the babysitter. “Because we were all good friends, I didn’t think I needed to go that route. We automatically assumed that because she and her husband were good friends of ours, we didn’t need to pursue that, going through [family child care] or something like that,” Kundert said.
“This wasn’t somebody I found on Craigslist. We knew them for over 10 years. This is our third duty station with them. Our families have been to the pumpkin patch together, barbecued together, had date nights, carved pumpkins, all that stuff,” she said.
She said after Ali’s death, someone made the comment that the babysitter’s house wasn’t child-friendly; that it didn’t have safety gates for the stairs. That’s one of the many requirements in the Defense Department regulation regarding family child care: that the child care provider use safety gates to prevent children from falling. The lack of safety gates didn’t concern Kundert, she said. “I trusted [the babysitter completely. It didn’t concern me because she was one of my best friends, and she took really good care of my kids, or so we thought. And Ali went up and down the stairs there.”
On military installations, DoD policy requires that anyone providing child care on a regular basis for more than 10 hours per week must be certified as a family child care provider. Providers must undergo stringent reviews and training before being certified and allowed to operate the business, including ongoing fire and safety inspections. Before civilian family members of the family child care provider can be substitute care providers, they must be approved and trained by FCC officials on the installation.
And “active duty military service members may serve as substitute providers only under circumstances approved by the DoD component,” states the regulation.
The babysitter was apparently not licensed by local civilian authorities, either. According to officials with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, neither the babysitter’s name or address shows up in a search for licensed child care providers.
‘When you sleep you don’t feel the pain’
Ali’s family often called her Ali Bear and princess, Rae Kundert said. “She was my husband’s twin. She was a firecracker, full of life. She loved to play. It’s been really hard on our family. . .
“When we go to a public place, like sitting with the kids at the pool, I find myself counting. My husband will see me doing that, and says, ‘Honey, she’s not here.’ Because I’m looking for Ali. Where’s Ali? Where’s Ali?
“Or there’s the time we were at Walmart, and I saw a really cute dress, and stopped to look at it. My husband said, ‘Let’s go.’”
Seeing other children Ali’s age is also hard. “You realize this is what she should be doing, and she’s not here,” she said.
“I just hope people understand how quickly things happen. You hear all the time, ‘Here today, gone tomorrow.’ That’s true. But the loss of a child, there’s just no explaining it. To lose her the way that we lost her, under the circumstances that we did…
“I want to sleep all day, because it seems like when you sleep you don’t feel the pain. When I sleep I imagine her running through a field of sunflowers, and then wake up. When you wake up, the reality hits, and it’s like a nightmare that’s happening all over again.
“I have to remind myself to breathe, because breathing reminds me that I’m alive, and that what is happening is real.”