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    DCF-approved guardians accused in deaths

    In South Florida, one child is beaten to death, one stomped, autopsies say. Both men charged had been given custody by the DCF.

    ©Associated Press
    April 19, 2003

    MIAMI -- The fatal beatings this week of two South Florida boys allegedly came at the hands of guardians who were approved by the state Department of Children and Families.

    Sixteen-month-old Deondre Bondieumaitre died Wednesday shortly after he was taken to a hospital by paramedics, Miami-Dade police investigators said. An autopsy Thursday showed that he died from blunt force trauma.

    Gregory Joseph, 23, admitted striking the boy, Detective Randy Rossman said. He was charged with first-degree murder and was being held Friday without bail.

    Joseph and a woman volunteered last year to be Deondre's legal guardians after his parents said they could not take care of him, and the DCF and the courts approved the arrangement, Rossman said.

    Rossman did not know whether Joseph had a previous criminal record. DCF officials did not immediately return a call Friday on that question.

    Meanwhile, DCF officials have acknowledged failing to tell a judge about the criminal record of a Key West man before he was granted custody of his 5-year-old son late last year.

    Christopher Lamont Bennett, 28, is charged with stomping Zachary Bennett to death Tuesday. The boy died of blunt trauma and had a ruptured liver, a bleeding brain, and "broken ribs consistent with having been stomped," an autopsy found Thursday.

    Bennett had previous arrests for allegedly selling cocaine, stalking and assault and battery. A domestic violence restraining order forbade him to go near a girlfriend.

    A caseworker found Bennett's record in a background check, but the agency didn't disclose it in recommending to a judge that the child be placed with him, said Samara Kramer, DCF interim district administrator in Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys.

    Kramer said Friday that the caseworker and supervisor in Zachary's case had resigned and that the department was investigating. She said placing a child with a person who has a criminal past is "sloppy" and "unconscionable."

    "This is not a system failure and not due to backlog," Kramer said. "This is simply a matter of people not doing their jobs."

    Kramer said she could not comment on details of the Deondre Bondieumaitre case.

    "I can only rely on the information presented to me," said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, who oversaw Zachary Bennett's case. "I absolutely did not know that this father had any criminal record whatsoever."

    Zachary was taken into state custody in April 2002 after his great-grandmother complained that his mother abused drugs. The DCF later placed the boy with the great-grandmother.

    But after Bennett suggested that he could be a better caretaker, the DCF recommended in October that Lederman move the boy to his father's care. Lederman said she received a favorable study of Zachary's living conditions on Oct. 4 and ended the department's supervision of the boy in February.

    The father was being held without bail Friday at the Monroe County Jail on charges of murder and aggravated child abuse.

    The death shows that, despite changes in the child protection system, DCF caseworkers still fail to relay valuable information to the courts, said Karen Gievers, a lawyer and president of the Children's Advocacy Foundation.

    "It seems like the department looked the other way just to close the investigation and say the child was not at risk," Gievers said.

    DCF Secretary Jerry Regier was unavailable for comment, an agency spokesman said Friday.

    Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday that the two cases "diminish" improvements made in the department under Regier, whom he hired last August after Secretary Kathleen Kearney quit amid an uproar over the disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson from foster care.

    "Our strategy is to lessen the number of children in the custody and care, and we've begun that," Bush said. "These cases that do occur, apart from being heartbreaking, they really anger me because it diminishes the good work that thousands of people inside the department are doing."

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