When Marjorie Dufrene’s hyperactive, developmentally disabled son refused to concentrate on his homework on Thanksgiving Day of 2011, she beat him with a belt so severely that he required surgery to restore vision to his left eye.
When, two months later, the boy had trouble spelling his words correctly, she beat him again with a pink belt, leaving scratches and scabs all over his face.
And when the boy spilled his mother’s juice 10 months after that, she punched him on his head. The then-6-year-old’s school called the state’s abuse hotline when the boy arrived at class with a “bloody head.”
The youngster was placed in foster care, and Dufrene had yet to regain custody of him and his younger sister when, in April 2014, the Department of Children & Families learned she was set to give birth to twins.
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Whatever Dufrene’s demons, they were not yet tamed: A disabled family friend told DCF that Dufrene, homeless at the time, had commandeered his Miami apartment with an infant daughter, and terrified him into allowing her to stay.
Yet a committee of child welfare administrators who met in Broward County late that April 2014 made a fateful — and, in hindsight, inexplicable — decision: that newborn Angela Dufrene and her twin brother were safe, and should remain in their mother’s care. A follow-up visit to inspect the twins’ home was never done. Weekly or monthly visits to oversee the family weren’t ordered.
DCF walked away from Angela and her twin. And the agency never returned — until it was too late.
When those same authorities were told last month that Angela had vanished, and her mother admitted she had tossed the youngster’s remains in a North Miami-Dade McDonald’s dumpster, a DCF supervisor summed up the agency’s befuddlement this way: “It is not yet known why or how the children were overlooked.”
While the error was tragic, it was certainly not unique. A Miami Herald investigation into the deaths of about 500 Florida children whose families had a history of abuse or neglect revealed that about 20 children died after child welfare authorities allowed them to remain with parents who had lost custody of older siblings because of maltreatment. One of the babies was Diella Ludwig, and her Dec. 21, 2008, killing prompted the state to strengthen its policies toward vulnerable newborns.
Diella’s death “underscores the necessity of pre-planning for children born into active cases, including the assessment of the home environment and implementation of services to provide the family and children with the tools and resources they need to reduce any existing risk,” a post-mortem concluded. “The needs of the children must … be of paramount concern to ensure factors increasing risk are ameliorated to the fullest extent possible.” The report was written in January 2009.
Five years later, child welfare authorities in Broward County held what is called a “Ludwig staffing” to determine whether Dufrene should be allowed to leave the hospital with her twins after they were born. They had held a similar meeting in February 2013 for Angela’s older sister, who had been born only two months after Dufrene’s oldest two children had been removed. Administrators had decided they had no authority to act because the newborn herself had never been abused.
The authorities in Broward knew Dufrene had recently been in a shelter, and was on a wait list for housing. “The mother is in need of stable housing in order for her two [older] children in foster care to be reunified with her,” an April 2, 2014, case note said.
“At this time, removal is not recommended,” the report said. The notes, however, do not specify what, if anything, the family’s caseworker was expected to do to ensure the newborn twins were safe and well cared for by a mother with a lengthy history of child abuse.
No other hints of what occurred during the staffing were included in close to 2,000 pages of records the Herald reviewed of events that led up to Angela’s death. DCF now says the Attorney General’s Office, which attended the staffing, has no documents of the event, and the agency is unsure as to whether a Broward Sheriff’s Office investigator who attended took notes.
DCF’s review of Angela’s death said the privately run foster care agency ChildNet was supposed to visit Dufrene’s home to ensure she was ready to raise newborn twins. The home visit never took place.
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Gardens Democrat, sponsored a 2003 bill in the state Legislature to ensure that no children in state care would endure such a fate going forward. She acted after 5-year-old Rilya Wilson disappeared from the home of a state-approved caregiver. Police and prosecutors say Rilya is dead, though her caregiver was convicted only of aggravated child abuse and kidnapping. The caregiver is serving a 55-year prison sentence.
The Rilya Wilson Act — which Wilson cared so deeply about, she later passed similar legislation in Congress — requires that children under state supervision age 3 and older be enrolled in school or day-care. It is designed to add an extra set of eyes on vulnerable children, but it is triggered only when authorities take steps to monitor a family.
“I never dreamed we’d run into another Rilya case,” said Wilson, a retired educator who threw birthday parties in absentia for the missing girl for several years before accepting that Rilya would never be found. “This is unbelievable; it’s like a nightmare,” Wilson said of Angela. “They made a bad call, a horrendous call.”
Dufrene has not been charged with a crime. She declined to speak with a Herald reporter following a recent child welfare court hearing.
The Herald sued DCF earlier this month when the agency declined to release abuse reports and other records for the family dating back to 2011, citing state law that protects the confidentiality of some records, even when a child is deceased. The agency did not object when Circuit Court Judge Cindy Lederman, who is overseeing the welfare of Angela’s twin, ordered DCF to make the documents public.
A separate review of the state’s history with Angela’s family released to the Herald on Friday afternoon identified a host of critical shortcomings, particularly a failure among the Broward Sheriff’s Office, DCF, the ChildNet foster-care agency and the Attorney General’s Office to communicate effectively — and, most critically — an inability to see the Dufrene family as what the agency head calls “a motion picture,” rather than a still photo.
“Throughout the prior history, the mother has shown a pattern of impulsive and violent behavior primarily associated with managing the behaviors of her children,” the report said. “The combination of both parents’ violent behavior, [the oldest boy’s] behavior issues, and the young age of the children would be cause for significant concerns for the safety of the children in the home.”
Investigations into the Dufrene family, the report said, “failed to fully assess everyone in the household, focused primarily on incidents that occurred versus the underlying family conditions, and information gathered was primarily based on self-report from the mother and limited interviews with” the older children.
The report added: “There were critical junctures during the family’s involvement with the child welfare system when the mother’s household needed to be assessed to determine if it was safe. During each of these times, the assessment was either not done or was not sufficient to accurately assess the safety of the children.”
In an interview with the Herald, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said “it defies logic” to conclude that a newborn could be safe in a home where older — and, therefore, less vulnerable — children are not considered safe. Cases such as Angela’s, Carroll said, sometimes confound lawyers and caseworkers because, while there is ample evidence that the child might be in danger, there is “no proof.”
In this case, the evidence was overwhelming. It began to accumulate on Thanksgiving Day, 2011. Dufrene said she was trying to help her then-6-year-old son with his homework. The boy’s troubles were well-documented: He had severe attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, was intellectually delayed and had trouble communicating. The ADHD was the real problem, as it made the youngster “aggressive and defiant,” his parents said. The boy just wouldn’t cooperate.
“The mother stated that, on that particular day, he was out-of-control,” a report said.
So Dufrene beat him with a belt.
Dufrene insisted that she did not intend to hurt her son. If the boy hadn’t squirmed while she administered his “discipline,” she would not have “accidentally” hit him in the eye, she said. But the damage was done, and the boy required surgery to correct his vision.
While a DCF investigator was still looking into the boy’s injured eye, another report arrived at the state’s abuse hotline, on Feb. 9, 2012: The same boy now had scabs and scratches all over his face. He told investigators his mom hit him on the face with a pink belt “because he is unable to spell his words.”
Dufrene told an investigator that her belt was the only thing boy was afraid of, and “she had to use it to discipline him.” The investigator replied, “The child was hit on the face, on the eye, and that cannot be considered as discipline.”
It turned out there was one other thing the boy feared. “He fears his mother,” a Feb. 10, 2012, report said, “because she beats him when he can’t spell his words.”
And a review of the youngster’s sparse medical records disclosed a prior injury of “unknown” origin: a 2005 collarbone fracture. Child abuse medical specialists reported “great concerns” for the child.
The boy’s father, at that point, supported Dufrene, saying in an interview with an investigator that she did “not abuse the child, that she was disciplining him because he is hard-headed.” The report added: “Father himself is not willing to protect, and does not believe that the child is abused.”
DCF declined to remove Dufrene’s two children. But the agency did ask a Broward County judge to supervise the family, and to order the Dufrenes to accede to caseworkers’ instructions. Marjorie Dufrene was no longer to beat her children as a form of discipline. Dufrene would attend parenting classes and counseling that focused on anger management and discipline. She seemed willing to comply. “The mother was very emotional and remorseful,” a report said.
Dufrene’s remorse lasted about 10 months.
On Dec. 17, 2012, DCF’s abuse hotline received yet another report: The same boy “spilled the mother’s juice, and the mother punched him on the head.” Records show that, as the boy arrived at school that morning, his teachers immediately noticed his “bloody head.”
After the beating, Dufrene instructed her son to keep his mouth shut about it, the boy said.
Child No. 3
The beating was Dufrene’s third strike. The Broward Sheriff’s Office investigator who had dealt with Dufrene 10 months earlier said she had warned Dufrene that another beating would result in the boy being removed. BSO followed through with the threat. The boy and his younger sister entered foster care for their protection.
Only two days after that investigation was closed, Dufrene’s third child was born. Inexplicably, child welfare authorities sent the baby home with her, concluding that the newborn was safe.
A report on that baby’s birth, and the short investigation that followed, took up four pages. It shows that authorities were certainly aware that Dufrene’s older, and less vulnerable, children were placed in foster care after one of them had been repeatedly beaten. The report suggests investigators were willing to give Dufrene a chance at raising the newborn girl — at least unless she was beaten, too. Dufrene “has demonstrated that she can and is willing to solve the problems in her home,” the report said, without specifying what that demonstration might be.
On Feb. 26, 2013, a BSO investigator, a caseworker with the privately run ChildNet agency and Assistant Attorney General Joi Pearsall met to decide the baby’s fate. It was decided the girl “would remain in the home with the parents” and would not be subject to the oversight of a judge, as her siblings were.
Pearsall, the investigator and caseworker believed they had no authority to shelter the baby because she “was not present for the incident which brought the other children into care,” the report said. Oddly, the notation appears to refer to an episode of domestic violence the older children witnessed, not the repeated abuse. The investigation did not appear to take into account that the newborn was being sent to live with a mother who had beaten a child in the face or head three times in one year — injuring him each time.
Less than two months after the staffing, DCF received another call. Dufrene arrived for a supervised visit with her older children wearing dark sunglasses, and refused to remove them. She told her caseworker that she and her husband had argued over doing housework. The argument ended with him punching her in the face, and he was arrested for battery. It was his second domestic violence arrest.
The Dufrenes separated in the ensuing months. Marjorie Dufrene’s name was associated with several addresses in Miami-Dade, and authorities began to consider her estranged husband as a better primary caregiver, despite his history of battery, aggravated battery and resisting arrest. Their reasoning: Marjorie Dufrene’s “living arrangements were unstable,” a report said. The two oldest Dufrene children were reunified with Dufrene’s husband, and she was allowed to visit with them.
The following October, Marjorie Dufrene’s name was reported to DCF’s abuse hotline again, but this time the report’s alleged victim was not a child. A family friend had reported that Dufrene’s mother, who was “heavily using crack,” had threatened and intimidated him, beat him on the head and “cut him with a knife” on his face and neck to get some of his Social Security money. Marjorie Dufrene had moved into the man’s “government housing” — with the infant girl DCF had allowed her to keep — and refused to move out.
Like Dufrene’s children, the 52-year-old man was defenseless, a report said. He was intellectually disabled, had a heart condition, suffered from depression and had been treated for cancer in his neck.
The man wanted “Marjorie to get out of the home,” a report said. He “gets upset to the point where he cries and has chest pains. This has been going on for a few months, and [he] is afraid of what may happen if Marjorie keeps doing things to him.” It is unclear whether DCF took any steps to remove Dufrene from the man’s home. She gave DCF his address one year later as Angela and her twin brother were about to be born.
The report oddly listed Dufrene as a “household member” — not an interloper. Though the report had documented that Dufrene and her infant daughter had moved into the man’s home “without his consent,” it did not trigger the agency to assess, once again, the infant’s safety.
Nor did the agency’s penultimate report, received June 1, 2015.
By this time, Dufrene had given birth to the twins. Her middle daughter, now 2, and the older children, aged 4 and 10, were living with their father, but spending weekends unsupervised with Dufrene. Someone told DCF’s hotline — it appears to be Dufrene’s estranged husband — that Dufrene was hitting the 4-year-old girl on her arm. Her then-boyfriend was hitting the girl with Dufrene’s disciplinary tool of choice, a belt.
The girl “cries when she is at the mother’s,” the report said. “And says she wants to go home.”
Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.
Statement from DCF Secretary Mike Carroll
“We are committed to working with our partners at the Broward Sherriff’s Office, the local community-based care agency, ChildNet, and the Attorney General’s Office in Broward County that handles children’s legal services to better protect vulnerable children. DCF is developing a proposal to amend Florida Statutes to ensure that the courts are fully aware of the entirety of the family’s functioning and serve as an additional safeguard. This change will ensure that children, like in the case with Angela, are added to ongoing cases.
“The complex nature of the child welfare system demands constant review to best protect Florida’s most vulnerable children. No child should ever have to endure abuse, neglect, or abandonment by those who are supposed to love and protect them.”