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6 months before boy’s death, DCF said he was safe

Catalina Marista Bruno had been arrested three times on charges involving drugs or alcohol. She had been drinking last July when police arrested her husband for beating her in front of her children. And she was deemed to be drunk in November when she reportedly clipped several walls before passing out with her infant son untethered in the front seat with her.

Still, state child welfare administrators concluded then that there was no evidence that Bruno’s drinking endangered the life of her baby son, Bryan Miguel Osceola. They closed their November case without requiring the mother to undergo alcohol treatment, parenting classes or any other services designed to protect her children.

Six months later, Bryan would again fall victim to the dangerous mix of cars and the presence of alcohol.

On Thursday, Bruno drove to her Kendall home at noon in her Chevrolet Impala, and left her purse, a beer can and her 11-month-old in the car, prosecutors say. Hours later, when Bryan’s father noticed he was missing, Bryan was found unconscious in his baby seat. His body temperature was 109 degrees. Bryan was pronounced dead at Kendall Regional Hospital.

Bruno remains in the Miami-Dade County Jail without bond as she awaits trial on charges of aggravated manslaughter of a child.

Investigators are still trying to figure out where Bruno, with the child in tow, was for the four hours before returning home and leaving Bryan in the car.

At a bond hearing Monday, Bruno’s attorney said she has been suffering from post-partum depression since weeks after Bryan’s birth, and had left the ailment untreated since running out of medication and failing to refill a prescription.

Bruno, defense attorney Lonnie Richardson said, is “in crisis” and needs to be evaluated by a psychiatrist. “I’m talking to her and I’m seeing someone who is a shell of a human being,” Richardson told Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Samantha Ruiz-Cohen. “She’s very sick and she needs help.”

The call to the Department of Children & Families last week to report Bryan’s death marked the state’s third contact with Catalina Bruno and her infant son.

DCF’s history with the family began on July 7, when the agency’s hotline received a report that Bryan’s father, Amos Osceola, had been arrested for domestic violence after he “attacked” Bruno in front of her three children — Bryan, a 4-year-old and 10-year-old from a different father.

Bruno and Osceola had gotten into an argument that day, records show. Osceola took Bryan and drove to the Miccosukee Resort. He left Bryan at a child care center, and drank until the casino operators kicked him out “due to his excessive drinking.” Bruno, the report said, “also started drinking while the father was away.”

“The father hit the mother several times,” the report said, and when the children saw the altercation, Bruno sent them to their rooms. The report said the beating was not the first between Osceola and Bruno.

A DCF report on the incident concluded the three children were at “moderate” risk, but otherwise “safe,” and the investigation was closed as “not substantiated” — meaning investigators were not convinced that domestic violence left the children in jeopardy. Nevertheless, the agency suggested Bruno leave Osceola and carry a cell phone with her at all times in case he came back to harm her again. DCF also planned to place Bruno’s children in daycare to enhance their safety.

But DCF records, obtained Monday by The Miami Herald under the state’s public records law, suggest nothing had changed when, four months later, DCF received another call: Bryan had been found Nov. 3 lying on the front seat unsecured as his mom was “passed out” drunk in a Chevy Impala a few minutes before midnight near Krome Avenue. DCF’s hotline was told that Bruno was “driving recklessly” and had “hit several walls” prior to falling asleep in her car with the transmission still in “drive.”

A police report said Bryan was found unsecured with his head between the front seats. The Florida Highway Patrol charged his 27-year-old mom with drunk driving and child neglect.

In the November case, a DCF investigator gauged the risk to Bryan and his siblings as “high.” Paradoxically, the agency concluded the children were safe. The report to DCF was closed with “no indicators” that Bruno’s drinking left her children in harm’s way.

Bruno, Osceola and other family members “explained Mom did not drink regularly and no one realized how drunk she really was when she left a family gathering,” a DCF report said. “Mom stated she did not realize how affected she was when she go [sic] in the car to go home.”

According to the DCF report, relatives and neighbors “all state that it was a one time thing, and not normal behavior for the mother.” The report added that Bruno would receive alcohol treatment or other services in criminal court.

That didn’t happen. The criminal case was still pending when Bryan died.

On Monday, DCF defended its decision not to intervene last November. The “determination was based on interviews with neighbors and family members and an evaluation conducted by an external substance abuse expert who did not recommend services,” said Alexis Lambert, a spokeswoman in Tallahassee.

However, a Miami-Dade judge with more than a decade of experience in child welfare cases called the substance abuse screening program used by DCF “a colossal failure.”Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, who spent 13 years in child welfare court before transferring to criminal trials, said the agency’s drug and alcohol evaluations largely consist of asking parents whether they have a substance abuse problem. If a parent denies a drinking problem, Cohen said, the evaluators mostly take their word for it.

Cohen called the process “a big joke.”

“I’ve been begging them for years to design a workable program that has teeth and is designed to help people get well,” said Cohen, who added she knew nothing about the Bruno case and could not discuss it. The substance abuse program, she said, “is not designed to help people get well. It’s designed to keep children out of the system — without keeping them safe.”

“It’s dangerous,” the judge added.

Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.