News laws mean little when DCF fails kids

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Last month, Marjorie Dufrene, left, appears in front of Judge Cindy Lederman in Miami.
Last month, Marjorie Dufrene, left, appears in front of Judge Cindy Lederman in Miami. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Two years ago, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law an all-encompassing, highly praised overhaul of the Department of Children & Families, committed to ensuring that the troubled agency could keep children safe, secure and alive.

Angela Dufrene died anyway. Her mother said so in court. “She is dead,” Marjorie Dufrene said, a stunning admission to which she added that the toddler’s body had been thrown in a dumpster.

The law, enacted after the Miami Herald’s series “Innocents Lost” chronicled, in heartbreaking detail, the preventable deaths of almost 500 children in DCF’s care, made saving children, not family preservation, the priority.

And still Angela died.

Lawmakers gave DCF a $44 million infusion to hire 270 child-protective investigators and ensure that they were well-educated and properly trained.

And still Angela died.

Her tragic case makes clear that the lessons of “Innocents Lost” have been lost themselves. At least five entities, including ChildNet, which provides case management in Broward County, the attorney general’s office and the Broward Sheriff’s Office, knew about the abusive circumstances into which Angela and her twin brother were born. Ms. Dufrene was a violent and abusive parent who herself needed help. She was ill-equipped to deal appropriately with her developmentally disabled son, whom she beat with a belt so severely that he lost sight in one eye, which took surgery to restore. She beat him when he misspelled words; she punched him in the head when he spilled some juice. He was left so bloody that teachers called the state’s abuse hotline, and the child was placed in foster care.

Subsequent calls to the hotline for incidents of domestic abuse between Ms. Dufrene and her husband should have kicked off a seamless intervention on behalf of Angela and her twin brother, who were born while their older brother — and another child, a girl — still were in foster care.

By then, Ms. Dufrene was homeless and had barged in on a friend who had an apartment, refusing to leave. The friend, too, called DCF. But a committee of child-welfare administrators decided that Ms. Dufrene was capable of providing a safe environment for her twins, and she was allowed to leave the hospital after giving birth. There was no followup, no regular home inspections ordered.

The collective lack of common sense is absolutely breathtaking. Instead of considering the breadth of the family’s tortured history, finicky administrators worried that since the twins had never been abused, they could not be removed from the home.

This is putting the safety of children first? In what universe did they expect Ms. Dufrene to become the model mom? This is the lack of critical thinking and skepticism that components of the new law were supposed to address.

It’s infuriating, because we’ve been here before. In 2013, just a year before the sweeping DCF overhaul, the agency instituted something called “the Safety Methodology” to address the inefficient process, fractured work systems and huge level of investigator turnover that, in part, contributed to the death of Nubia Barahona, 10. In 2011, her partially decomposed body was found, wrapped in a plastic garbage bag, in the back of her adoptive father’s pickup truck.

But once more, several agencies banded together to do what’s best for children at risk. They failed miserably, and little Angela Dufrene died.