DCF ignored case of baby who later died
(MIAMI HERALD) For six months, Broward Circuit Judge Eileen O’Connor had been struggling to referee Alberto and Jocelyn Barros’ nightmare of a marriage.
A former federal prosecutor who presides in the county’s specialized Domestic Violence Court, she knew all too well how badly such things can end.
But O’Connor was less worried about the warring adults than their infant son Bryce, whom she feared might well become collateral damage. Three times in February and March, she faxed the state’s child-abuse hot line: “The court is deeply concerned about the welfare of the minor child.”
Child welfare administrators finally accepted the case on July 3. By then, Bryce Barros was dead. He was just shy of 2.
Now, Hallandale Beach police homicide detectives are trying to figure out what child-abuse investigators never tried to, and to determine what, exactly, killed the dark-haired boy.
The Department of Children & Families, too, is looking for answers. Among them: why its hot line counselors repeatedly ignored what amounts to a court order.
“The system didn’t work in this case,” DCF Secretary George Sheldon acknowledged. “There are no excuses for it . . . This is a reminder to everybody that what we do is so critical to the lives of people.”
Hallandale Beach police would not discuss Bryce’s death, which both police and the Broward medical examiner’s office say is an open investigation. The Miami Herald received detailed records of DCF’s role through a public records request, which the agency initially fought.
The boy’s father, Alberto Barros, 31, who in an unrelated 2004 case in Minnesota had been convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault, could not be reached for comment.
Mother Jocelyn Barros, 24, who now lives in Hollywood, says she is devastated.
“I have never abused [Bryce] in any way,” she told The Herald. “I would have done anything for that kid, God knows. I can’t tell you how many times I had gone weeks without eating myself just to make sure there was food on his table, just to make sure he was taken care of.”
“He was my little angel.”
DCF’s ongoing investigation says police have two theories as to how the baby died: “First, the child may have had a bad virus and died from complications caused by that. Second, the symptoms match those of blunt force trauma,” a report says.
O’Connor first raised a red flag in the form of a handwritten fax to DCF that followed a threat to the warring parents from the bench.
In the case before O’Connor, Jocelyn accused her husband of stalking her, and he had sought a restraining order against her as well. The two were living separately and sharing custody of Bryce.
“Because you two couldn’t get along, and are doing ridiculous things with your child, DCF is going to get involved and do an investigation and they are going to figure out whether you’re doing an OK job,” she warned the couple at a Jan. 29 court hearing.
It proved to be an empty threat. DCF investigators rejected the judge’s request. “The fax was screened because there are are no allegations of abuse, neglect [or] threatened harm to the child,” a hot line counselor wrote at the time.
On March 10, at 11:22 a.m., O’Connor re-faxed the complaint. It was again rejected — this time because it did not specify where the baby could be found, and because it contained “no allegations” of harm to him.
O’Connor sent a third fax 32 minutes later, adding an address. Again, a hot line counselor threw it out on the grounds of “no allegations,” and “insufficient information.”
Under DCF policy, O’Connor’s third strike should have triggered an automatic review of the case by DCF quality-assurance investigators. The thinking: If anyone is concerned enough to ask three times, maybe it’s worth another look.
“Somehow, in this case, that didn’t happen,” Sheldon said. “There is no question that should have been done.”
On April 21, Jocelyn Barros called the abuse hot line herself. Bryce, she said, “consistently returns from dad’s [visits] with injuries.”
After a recent visit, the infant had a layer of skin peeled from his wrist “along with deep lacerations,” she said.
What’s more, she said, the boy’s father posted a video on of the baby standing up in a grocery cart, and has posted other videos of him climbing stairs by himself.
Jocelyn Barros had told Hollywood police about her concerns, and they referred her to DCF.
After visits with Dad, Jocelyn complained, Bryce’s eyes “don’t hold happiness.”
But the mother’s concerns, too, were dismissed — though, apparently, after some greater consideration.
Laura Johnson, a special projects coordinator, wrote a May 11 e-mail to bosses. Jocelyn Barros had called, discussed her concerns for the baby, and asked why the judge’s faxes had all been ignored. “What is the protocol for this type of [court] order?” Johnson asked.
“This is a custody issue,” was one reply.
Caseworkers did not walk away entirely, though. They say they sent Jocelyn Barros a form letter, offering help from food banks, clothing closets, adult day care and Meals on Wheels. And a phone number for a domestic violence shelter. Jocelyn Barros says she never received the letter, and DCF says the agency no longer has a copy of it.
There was no further contact between DCF and the Barroses until July 3. The hot line received one more report: “When the mom awoke, after putting Bryce to bed, he was not breathing and non-responsive.”
BRYCE’S FINAL DAYS
A report from the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which investigates child abuse complaints for DCF in the county, said Bryce’s baby-sitter became concerned on July 1 that the infant “was vomiting, lethargic and could not hold his head up. The mother reportedly advised the baby-sitter that she could not pick up the victim child or she would lose her job.”
The next day, Jocelyn Barros picked Bryce up, pedaled with him three miles home by bicycle, and put him to bed, BSO wrote. Barros said that by the time she took him home, his fever was gone, he was no longer vomiting, and he appeared to be getting better. She fell asleep with Bryce next to her.
When she woke up the next morning, he was not breathing, records say.
“If I had had any clue that it was more than just sickness, I would have done more,” Jocelyn Barros said. “I would have. I would have.”
“If I had known more, maybe it wouldn’t be like this. Maybe he would still be here.”