Crime

Mother of missing Miami toddler stuns court: ‘She is dead’

Judge Cindy Lederman in court in 2013 during a hearing on Department of Children and Families oversight of a case.
Judge Cindy Lederman in court in 2013 during a hearing on Department of Children and Families oversight of a case. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

As Miami homicide detectives urgently searched for missing toddler Angela Dufrene, her mother made a stunning admission in court this week.

“She is dead,” Marjorie Dufrene calmly told a Miami-Dade judge Thursday, according to audio of a court hearing obtained by the Miami Herald. “She is no longer with us.”

The shocking revelation in court came just hours before Miami police issued a bulletin asking for the public’s help in finding Angela, who might have vanished at least eight months ago in November. The girl’s disappearance was discovered this week after an anonymous abuse tip spurred an investigation by the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Sources have told the Herald that the mother detailed to police and child-welfare investigators several versions of the child’s fate, including that the child suffered a fatal fall, and Dufrene later discarded the body in a North Miami-Dade dumpster.

Because of the conflicting statements, investigators still hold hope the toddler might be alive. If she is, Angela would be two years old. She has a twin brother, who has now been placed in a foster home. Frustrated detectives have little to work with — so far, not even a photo of the little girl has been unearthed — but the search remains ongoing.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman appeared troubled that the DCF office in Broward had not been monitoring the family. The agency had a long history with Dufrene, who had lost custody of three of her other children after an arrest in 2013.

“It seems like someone in Broward is sleeping, all the priors here and nothing was done. It’s astounding, quite frankly,” Lederman said at Thursday’s hearing in juvenile court.

Broward County is unique in Florida: Child abuse investigations all are conducted by the Broward Sheriff’s Office. Legal decisions are overseen by the State Attorney General’s office. And, foster care and adoption services are supervised by a private provider, ChildNet.

Dufrene, 30, is a mother of five who works at Dunkin Donuts. She has not been charged with any crime and has been cooperating with police. She could not be reached for comment.

“We are very concerned about the well-being of this child,” a DCF spokeswoman, Jessica Sims, said in a statement. “The department has initiated a child protective investigation regarding the circumstances that led to the disappearance of the child and we will continue to work closely with law-enforcement.”

A Miami police spokeswoman, Kenia Fallat, declined to discuss specifics of the investigation but said detectives are actively exploring every possibility. “It’s a complex case. We have so little to go on.”

Dufrene first came under DCF scrutiny in 2013, when she was arrested in Broward County in February 2013 for misdemeanor child neglect and battery. According to an arrest report, Broward deputies received a report that Dufrene had hit one of her children, “causing a cut and a bruise.”

“Marjorie has previous [child abuse] reports filed against her and is not allowed to physically discipline her children,” the report said.

The child was removed from the home and confirmed that Dufrene had hit him. “The medical exam showed positive indications of abuse,” the report said.

Court records show Dufrene was eventually put on one year of probation and fined.

It was after her arrest that DCF stripped her of custody and placed her three children with their biological father, Lewis Dufrene, although she had visitation rights on weekends. While on probation in April 2014, Dufrene revealed to the criminal-court judge that she was expecting.

“I am currently pregnant with twins and due April 17 and I’m on maternity leave, so financially, I won’t be able to make the full amount and would like some time,” Dufrene wrote to Broward Circuit Judge Kenneth Gottleib, who granted her more time to pay the fine.

According to testimony in juvenile court, DCF closed its case on Dufrene in Broward last year. What remains unclear was when DCF learned about the twins and if the agency allowed them to live with Dufrene.

The DCF spokeswoman said the agency did not have any history with the missing toddler, Angela, before this week’s investigation. So far, the agency has declined to release any internal reports on the case.

“We are reviewing the records that pertain to the family to determine what we will be able to release relating to the family,” Sims said.

The identity of the father of the twins remains unknown. A former boyfriend, Henry Mathieu, appeared in court Thursday and said he had just learned he might be the father; he agreed to take a paternity test.

Dufrene apparently stayed off the radar until earlier this week, when the anonymous tip came into DCF hotline alleging that her children visiting on weekends were living in filthy conditions, sources said.

Sources said when DCF investigators arrived at the home, Dufrene initially claimed she only had four children. But suspicious investigators pulled birth certificates, and it became clear that Angela was missing. Police were immediately notified.

Thursday’s hearing in Miami-Dade juvenile court was held to explore the welfare of Dufrene’s children. Judge Lederman also ordered a psychological evaluation of Dufrene.

In a tense exchange, Lederman asked Dufrene: “OK, so I’m going to ask the mother, where is Angela?”

Dufrene remained silent.

Her lawyer stepped in. “I’m going to assert her right against self-incrimination,” said her attorney, unidentified in the courtroom audio.

Lederman pressed. “She is … ” Dufrene said quietly. Her attorney reminded her of her right to remain silent.

“She is dead. She is no longer with us,” Dufrene admitted.

Lederman continued. “Can you give us a date of death?”

Dufrene hesitated. “Sometime last year.”

“Can you be a little more specific?”

“November,” she replied.

Because of the ongoing investigation, Lederman stopped asking questions. “My concern is that if the child is alive, we want to find her immediately,” she said.

Search for Angela

Anyone with information on Angela’s whereabouts can call Miami Police’s investigations unit at 305-397-4795, or Miami-Dade CrimeStoppers at 305-471-TIPS.

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