Then a report came in to the hotline on Sept. 4, 2012. The caller, who is not identified, said that the children in the household were “really dirty and they all smell.” Investigators were aware that Sierra and her children were living in the home, records show, but failed to account for any of them when they closed their case on Oct. 15, instructing Menendez to do a better job of mopping her floor. A report suggests the investigator was not even aware that Sierra, 21, had, two months earlier, given birth to her third child.
On Oct. 16,. the hotline received another report. It was phoned in by an officer with the Hallandale Police Department, which had been called to the home during a custody dispute between Sierra and Dontrell’s father.
“We will document your concerns,” hotline counselor Stephanie Flemming said before hanging up that October afternoon. The “documentation” was a three-sentence report. It was then “screened out,” meaning no action was warranted.
DCF administrators say the agency acted properly because the officer did not express any concerns that Dontrell had been the victim of abuse or neglect, and because the agency does not have jurisdiction over missing children cases, which, under state law, must be forwarded to police.
Assistant DCF Secretary Pete Digre told The Miami Herald on Tuesday that the hotline counselor who picked up the call — a woman who holds a master’s degree in social work — concluded from her conversation that the two agencies had simply “stumbled on to a custody” dispute between Melvin and Sierra. The caller, Digre said, “did not have any sense of urgency. The conversation didn’t speak of any danger to the child. Both of them were viewing it as a non-urgent custody situation that should’ve been worked out between the mother and father.”
Andrea Moore, a Broward children’s advocate who served on a child protection “transformation” panel that is recommending improvements to DCF, said it appears the officer may not have known “the magic words” to prompt an investigation. But, she added, given Dontrell’s youth and the extended family’s long history with DCF, the risks to an infant child should have been evident. “The younger the child, the more concern there should have been,” she said. “There have been millions spent on reform, with the same results.”
David Lawrence, a children’s advocate who chaired panels that studied the deaths of both Rilya Wilson and Nubia Barahona, said the departments didn’t think or act the way a responsible parent would.
“It seems to me the most powerful finding from the Nubia case was that folks might have followed all of the rules, but didn’t connect things and didn’t use common sense,” said Lawrence, a former Miami Herald publisher. “If you have to give the benefit of the doubt, you simply must give it to the child.”