A Miami-Dade judge will review an estimated 20,000 pages of child welfare reports involving a family whose young child has vanished and is feared dead to decide which reports, if any, ought to be released to the public.
The documents, to be examined by Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, might reveal whether the state could have done more to protect Angela Dufrene, whose mother told the judge last month that she tossed her infant’s body into a North Miami-Dade dumpster.
The Miami Herald filed a court petition this week asking that the documents be made public.
At a hearing on Wednesday, Lederman, who presides over child protection disputes, told the Department of Children & Families to submit the records for her to examine privately in chambers.
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In July, Lederman approved a petition by DCF to shelter Angela’s twin brother. The toddler now is in foster care. Their mother, Marjorie Dufrene, told Lederman last month that Angela was dead. Dufrene has told police multiple stories about what happened to the child, but has been consistent in saying Angela was no longer alive, and died around November of last year.
There is virtually no tangible trace of Angela’s life, save for one grainy photo police found after searching for days.
Dufrene’s two oldest children were removed from her care following at least three reports of physical abuse, including one in which investigators concluded that Dufrene had beaten her son in the head so severely that he required eye surgery. She became pregnant with twins while the state retained jurisdiction over her family.
DCF administrators met in April 2014 to decide whether to include Angela and her twin in the court case that surrounded DCF’s protective supervision of Marjorie Dufrene’s older children. The administrators chose not to, which left the infants essentially invisible to the state. In June 2015, DCF’s abuse hotline received a call about the family, but investigators apparently never observed Angela or her twin. Dufrene, who has been the subject of about 10 abuse or neglect calls, told police Angela was dead by the following November.
The Herald’s attorney, Sanford Bohrer, told Lederman Wednesday that Florida law allows her to release otherwise confidential records if there is a compelling public interest to be served by doing so. “There is a real public interest in this,” he said.
Bohrer compared Angela’s disappearance to that of another Miami youngster, 4-year-old Rilya Wilson, who vanished while under DCF care around December 2000. Rilya had been placed in the custody of a family friend. A caseworker was supposed to make monthly visits to ensure Rilya was safe, but the visits never occurred. Another caseworker realized Rilya was missing when she went to caregiver Geralyn Graham’s home to discuss Rilya’s adoption.
Rilya’s disappearance shocked and transfixed South Florida, and the nation. Assigned to preside over the case was Lederman, who became angry when agency administrators were uncooperative in court, and refused to disclose information about Rilya’s sister. Lederman ordered the agency to release thousands of pages of agency casework and legal records, and the documents pointed to profound systemic failings. At the urging of a task force appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, lawmakers passed reform legislation and the agency vowed to do better.
In 2012, Graham was convicted of aggravated child abuse and kidnapping, and ordered to serve 55 years in prison.
“I don’t like to mention Rilya Wilson, but this brings back memories, for those of us who were here then,” Bohrer said. “We just need to know what happened,” he added, referring to Angela. “I think the public feels better when it has the facts, and the Legislature acts better when it has more facts.”
DCF’s attorney, Javier Ley-Soto, said the agency did not object to releasing records on Marjorie Dufrene and her children. He asked Lederman to be sensitive about identifying people who were involved in the years-long cases, saying the judge had to balance the public’s interest in transparency and oversight against the welfare of Dufrene’s other children.
The Herald had agreed in advance not to name any of Dufrene’s other youngsters.