The June 12, 2015, hearing in Broward child welfare court was either a last chance to save 1-year-old Angela Dufrene before she vanished — or an opportunity to discover she was missing before more than a year would pass.
Either way, the opportunity was squandered.
On that June day, Broward Circuit Judge Stacey Schulman was trying to determine what action to take after the state’s child abuse hotline had been told that Angela’s mother, Marjorie Dufrene, had “excessively” beaten one of her two oldest children.
Schulman heard testimony that Dufrene’s oldest children, placed with their father because of their mother’s past abuse, were sometimes apprehensive about being delivered to their mom for weekend visitation. She learned that the mother’s home in Miami was infested with rats. Despite all that, the judge was told by a child welfare caseworker that her agency had no concerns about the children’s well-being.
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And she heard confusing testimony from Dufrene’s two eldest kids about how many children were in the family. On that day, as during visits by child welfare professionals before and after the hearing, nobody thought to account for the health and safety — or continued existence — of all five of Marjorie Dufrene’s children.
By that point, there might have been only four. Dufrene has since told authorities that daughter Angela, an infant when she was last seen, was “no longer with us.” Dufrene’s explanation for Angela’s death was sketchy, except for one detail she stuck to: the tot’s remains were disposed of in a McDonald’s dumpster.
God forbid something happens with these children and I’m aware of the allegations, and I take no action. It’s on my shoulders.
Broward Circuit Judge Stacey Schulman
The formerly secret transcript, obtained by the Miami Herald following a public records request filed with the Broward circuit courts, is another piece in the puzzle of how a child, in a family under state supervision because of repeated abuse allegations, can simply vanish without raising eyebrows.
At the time of the hearing, the two eldest children, then age 10 and 4, remained under the jurisdiction of ChildNet, a private foster care agency under contract with the state. They had been removed from Dufrene after she beat the older boy three times, injuring him, then returned under state oversight.
On the weekends, Dufrene’s two older children stayed with her and her live-in boyfriend in an Overtown apartment with a rat problem. “Any other kids who live at Mommy’s?” Schulman asked the 10-year-old boy.
“My brother and sister,” the boy, who is developmentally delayed, replied. Then he named three children, including Angela.
Investigators with both the Department of Children & Families in Miami and the Broward Sheriff’s Office in that county who looked into the Dufrene children’s welfare that summer appear to have observed only one of the five children. If Angela was alive that July, no one saw her. Records show no one made any effort to observe her.
It was not until July 21 of this year that authorities discovered Angela had disappeared. That day, Marjorie Dufrene announced in another courtroom, this one in Miami, that Angela “is dead.”
The disappearance, and likely death, of Angela Dufrene remains under investigation by the Miami Police Department, as well as the Department of Children & Families, which had a years-long history with Marjorie Dufrene.
Dufrene’s contact with DCF began shortly after the Thanksgiving holiday of 2011, when the agency was told Dufrene injured her then-6-year-old son’s eye while beating him with a belt. After two additional reports were verified — she beat the boy with a belt again, and punched him in the head — both the boy and his younger sister were removed from Dufrene’s care. Dufrene was allowed supervised, then unsupervised, visitation. Throughout, her contact with the two children was monitored by both ChildNet and a succession of Broward child welfare judges.
When Dufrene’s third child, a girl, was born, on Jan. 25, 2013, Broward child protection administrators held a “staffing” — a conference involving multiple agencies — and chose not to include her under state supervision. They did the same more than a year later when Angela and her twin brother were born April 4, 2014. More than 2,000 pages of records obtained by the Herald — following a lawsuit DCF did not oppose — show the birth of Dufrene’s three youngest children did not go unnoticed, or undocumented, though no effort was ever made to oversee their safety.
In the summer of 2015, the two oldest Dufrene children were living with their father in Broward County, and spending weekends with their mother in Miami. Lewis Dufrene told authorities on June 1 of that year that his ex-wife was abusing the children. With that as a backdrop, Schulman held the hearing. Technically, only the 10-year-old and 4-year-old children were under Schulman’s jurisdiction. Neither ChildNet nor the Attorney General’s Office, which represents the state in Broward, ever asked a judge to include the three children in the court case overseeing the Dufrene children’s safety.
The Herald obtained a transcript of the July 12, 2015, hearing from Schulman, who asked a court reporter to transcribe a tape of the hearing on the news organization’s behalf.
The transcript shows Schulman was aware of the stakes when she convened the hearing, which included representatives of ChildNet, the Attorney General’s Office, the Guardian-ad-Litem Program — which represented the children — as well as both parents and their lawyers.
“God forbid something happens with these children and I’m aware of the allegations, and I take no action. It’s on my shoulders,” the judge said, shortly after the hearing began. “No one else would feel that burden, but certainly I would. And I do. And I have a concern that there are allegations of physical abuse.”
The family’s ChildNet caseworker spoke only one word, other than to identify herself when the hearing began. “Does the advocate have any kind of concerns?” the judge asked. “No,” the caseworker replied.
Lewis Dufrene spoke first. He told the judge that he picked up his son and daughter at the ChildNet office building after visits with their mom, and that the 4-year-old girl had complained to him that both her mother and Dufrene’s live-in boyfriend hit her. He said he had to persuade the children to go on the visits because they did not want to leave his house.
“I tell them, ‘Hey, you know what? You’re going to spend the weekend with your Mom. You know, you guys are going to have fun,’” just to assure them. But they really don’t want to go.”
“There’s been times when [the girl] said, ‘No, I do not want to go,’” Lewis Dufrene said of his daughter. “I’m basically forcing her to go.”
During the hearing, Dufrene’s 4-year-old daughter spun around in a swivel chair as Schulman questioned her about the difference between telling the truth and telling lies. “When you lie,” the girl said, “you go to hell.”
The little girl referred to her mother repeatedly as “Marjorie.” At her mother’s house, the girl said, “we go to sleep at night and watch TV, but [her 1-year-old brother] always cry for his bottle.”
When the children “cry and scream,” they get in trouble, and sit in a corner, the girl said.
Like every time when we go home, we see the rats.
Marjorie Dufrene’s then-10-year-old son
The girl’s older brother had just finished third grade, he said later. His favorite subject was math, and he liked playing video games at home, especially wrestling. He also said he knew the difference between the truth and lies, and he would “get in trouble” and go to his room when he spoke the latter.
“Mommy” lived in Overtown with her boyfriend. “Any other kids who live at Mommy’s,” the judge asked.
“My brother and sister,” the 10-year-old answered. He then told the judge three names, one of which was Angela’s.
The 10-year-old described himself as “the good kid” in Mommy’s house, but said his siblings sometimes get in trouble when they lie or “pee in their pants.”
“Has Mommy ever done anything else besides put someone in the corner?” the judge asked.
“She hit my sister,” the boy said, referring to the 4-year-old, “when she don’t want to go to, to the corner.”
“And how did she hit her?”
“On her leg.”
“How many times did that happen,” the judge asked a moment later.
“More than once.”
From there, the details got murky. The boy said his sister was hit one time, or two times, but “a long time ago.”
The boy’s father had maintained — and told DCF’s abuse hotline — that his children told him Marjorie Dufrene had hit the 4-year-old girl on her arm, and that her boyfriend had beaten the girl with a belt. “When she leaves her mother’s residence, it takes her a few days to get back to being herself,” a report quoted the father as saying. “She is usually happy and full of personality, but after visiting her mother, she is ‘gloom.’”
The abuse report had been received only a month after Dufrene had been reunified with her two older children.
The 10-year-old was clear about one thing: he didn’t like visiting his mother. “Do you like going over to Mommy’s house,” the judge asked him.
“No,” he replied.
“Do you feel safe when you go to Mommy’s house?”
“A little bit,” the boy said.
“A little bit? Tell me why you don’t feel safe.”
“Rats,” he said.
Big rats, the boy said, one of which was gray with a long, pink tail. The rodents hid next to the “frigerator,” and under the couch where the children slept. “Like every time when we go home, we see the rats.”
The rats and the possible beatings notwithstanding, the transcript of the hearing, together with other records, suggests child welfare authorities did little to protect the Dufrene children after they left the Fort Lauderdale courthouse. Schulman said she understood how difficult it was for the 10-year-old to speak ill of his mother while she was sitting right in front of him. The judge added: “There’s clearly some discomfort on the part of the child in visiting his mom’s house.”
Schulman concluded, though: “There’s not an immediate threat or danger that would arise from the court continuing to allow the children to visit with the mother, but the mother needs to understand there should be no physical punishment with these children.” Speaking directly to Marjorie Dufrene, she added “You cannot lay hands on these kids, especially in light of why this case came into care in the first place.”
The judge also instructed Dufrene to get rid of the rats.
A little more than two weeks later, the Broward Sheriff’s Office closed its investigation into Dufrene’s treatment of her children. A DCF investigator in Miami was tasked with visiting Dufrene’s home, as the two counties do not share staff. The investigator described Dufrene’s middle girl, age 2, as “neat and tidy,” with “no marks of bruises.” Dufrene and her boyfriend denied abusing the children, and the investigation was closed that day, July 29, 2015. Records make no mention of Angela Dufrene or her twin.
The ChildNet caseworker also had concluded there were “no safety concerns for the children at this time.” A report added: “Children are safe and no danger threats identified.
A July 26, 2016, administrative review of the state’s long history with Dufrene concluded the investigation that summer in 2015 had been extremely poor, with “limited communication” among the investigator, case manager and attorney, no contact with anyone in the community or neighborhood who could shed light on the family, “minimal interviews of the household members,” and an unfortunate reliance on the judge to make decisions. The twins, the review said, were never seen, and their safety was never assessed.
A year later, when police and prosecutors began to look into what happened to Angela, they uncovered a tragic development: As child welfare authorities walked away from the Dufrene children — again — the beatings continued, the youngsters said.
The oldest boy, now 11, later told investigators that his mother hit him on his arm when he accidentally dropped a cup, and hit him on his back when he forgot his phone inside her house. The boy said Dufrene hit his now-5-year-old sister, too, when the girl wouldn’t stay in the corner as punishment. And now his mother was hitting Angela’s twin, a toddler, as well. “She only pop pop” the toddler, the 11-year-old said, demonstrating with an open hand. When he’s hit, “he cry,” the boy said.
Dufrene’s oldest daughter, now 5, said her mother’s boyfriend was not nice, and that he also hit the children. She demonstrated the discipline by “slapping herself with an open hand on different parts of her body, including her face,” a report said. The girl confirmed that her baby brother was being physically disciplined. A report said the girl answered questions in a sing-song voice. When asked if the toddler was hit, she said: “Get a whooping, Get a whooping.”
Both of the older children said their mother asked them to keep secrets. “She always say, ‘don’t tell nobody,’” the 11-year-old said.
“When asked what happened that his mother told him not to talk about,” a report said, the boy replied “I don’t wanna say.”